Legislature’s turn to act on housing

The following commentary was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Aug. 8 2023.

Gov. Josh Green has accomplished what housing advocates have wanted for years: He reduced red tape that has frustrated the growth of affordable housing.

Now the pressure is on the Legislature to enact permanent reform.

But there’s a catch: The governor’s emergency order on affordable housing cannot realistically be duplicated by the state Legislature. And that points to an even bigger problem: the possibility that Hawaii lacks the political will to make the changes needed to grow housing at all levels.

To understand how complex the issue is, one must first consider what the governor did via his emergency order on affordable housing. After outlining the depth of the problem, the governor went on to suspend multiple laws and create a working group intended to reduce the number of approvals needed to build homes.

Among the laws suspended by the order — in whole or partially — were requirements related to historic preservation, environmental impact statements, county zoning and land-use ordinances, county approvals for housing developments, civil service requirements, collective bargaining laws, sunshine and transparency requirements, Hawaii Community Development Authority rules, the Hawaii Public Procurement Code, the state Land Use Commission’s (LUC’s) sole authority to approve projects between 15 and 100 acres, and a handful of other statutes.

To oversee the whole effort, the governor created the Build Beyond Barriers Working Group and appointed a lead housing officer, entrusting them with broad powers to approve and expedite affordable housing projects.

One can nitpick various elements of the governor’s plan. For example, there are the questions of whether it’s an appropriate and constitutional use of executive power, and whether the working group’s broad authority is vulnerable to questions of favoritism, waste or corruption — an issue exacerbated by the suspension of the state’s sunshine laws.

There’s also the fact that this is a temporary measure that can only be applied to certain projects and not housing development as a whole.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the bold and potentially transformative nature of the governor’s action.

But if Green’s executive order bears fruit, how can the Legislature make these measures last?

Technically, the Legislature could amend or eliminate much of the statutory language suspended in Green’s order. Also, lawmakers could limit county and LUC authority over approvals and create a new agency charged with streamlining the approval process.

But realistically, none of those are likely. The emergency proclamation itself is almost an indictment of legislative inaction to date.

However, it is possible for the Legislature to enact reforms that follow the theme and intent of Green’s order without going quite as far. Thus, the Legislature could:

>> Force the counties to relax zoning restrictions so as to allow for development of affordable housing and necessary infrastructure.

>> Revisit the rules and statutes related to historic preservation and environmental impact statements to ensure that they are not burdensome to homebuilders.

>> Require counties and government agencies to revise rules related to building requirements, infrastructure, and development approvals.

>> Limit the LUC’s decision-making authority to projects over 100 acres, allowing any district boundary amendments under 100 acres to be approved by the county. The Legislature also could condense the timeline for approvals at both the LUC and county levels. 

Yes, the Legislature can’t duplicate the governor’s order. But it does have the power to build on it and permanently remove the slow and obstructive bureaucracy that has blocked the growth of housing in our state.

The only question now is whether state lawmakers will do so, or whether they will prolong a housing emergency of our own making.

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