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California says, ‘Yes in God’s backyard’

I don’t usually endorse following California’s lead on policy issues, but there might be something Hawaii can learn from our close mainland neighbor when it comes to housing reform.

Specifically, California legislators recently passed what became known as the “Yes in God’s backyard” bill, which streamlined the state’s permitting and zoning laws to make it easier for religious and higher educational institutes to build homes on lands that they own.

Christopher Calton, a research fellow at California’s Independent Institute and my guest this week on ThinkTech Hawaii’s “Hawaii Together” program, said the measure will free up about 170,000 acres of land that could be used for lower-cost housing.

A similar measure was considered earlier this year by the Hawaii Legislature, but it failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

Other recent California housing reforms cited by Calton allow up to four homes on a single-family-zoned lot, and authorize the construction of accessory dwelling units that could be used as rentals.

These reflect a growing acceptance of the YIMBY or “Yes in my backyard” philosophy of housing policy — as opposed to “Not in my backyard” advocates who see new housing as a threat to their property values or aesthetic sensibilities.

Calton said passing the “Yes in God’s backyard” law shows that California legislators have recognized that permitting barriers and zoning regulations are two chief contributors to the state’s housing crisis.

But, he continued, “if we’re recognizing this, why are we limiting this … when we can open it up to all property owners and have an even greater effect?”

Ultimately, Calton said, the best way to prompt more housing construction would be to eliminate zoning completely, as in Houston where the median cost of a home is $300,000 and the median monthly rent is $1,800 for a three-bedroom unit.

But shy of going that far, Calton recommended at least liberalizing zoning and adopting “by right” permitting.

Liberalized zoning, he said, would include abolishing single-family zoning, parking requirements and minimum lot size and floor-area requirements, as well as allowing a wider variety of “housing typologies,” such as apartments, duplexes, condos and mobile homes.

By-right permitting simply says planning officials must issue building permits to applicants who can show that their proposed projects conform to all existing zoning and building codes, thus qualifying for construction without discretionary approval.

Calton said he was happy to see that support is growing for housing policies that the Independent and Grassroot institutes have been recommending for decades.

In fact, he said, liberalized zoning reform today is “largely being driven by progressives, who usually, typically, are going to be characterized by looking to the state to do more, not less. So that’s quite remarkable, and speaks to the fact that when people are facing a severe crisis, they’re going to look for innovative solutions.”

Now, if we in Hawaii can just speed up enacting those innovative solutions into law.
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This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Sept, 30, 2023. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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