Monsters of our own making

In the spirit of Halloween, I want to tell you a spooky story about a monster.

The mere whisper of the monster can be enough to terrify the community. Some speak in hushed tones and others shout with alarm and dread about how its large, shambling form is a grotesque violation of earthly and natural law, how it brings ruin to the area. They do their best to chase the monster away.

But instead, they should put more blame on the monster’s creators.

I’m not talking about some kind of Frankenstein monster here. Actually, I’m not really talking about a monster at all. I’m talking about so-called “monster homes,” the term given to extra large houses built on single-family lots.

In the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley, the “monster” was created by young scientist Victor Frankenstein, who refused to acknowledge that what he was doing was problematic. His ghoulish creation of a humanoid was a patchwork non-living matter that he eventually brought to life.

Monster homes, on the other hand, are the result of a patchwork of zoning laws, NIMBYism and land-use regulations imposed by government officials intent on micromanaging the pace and character of housing growth — which not surprisingly has stifled that growth and led to some of the highest housing prices in the nation.

Let’s face it: Just like other scapegoats for the housing crisis, monster homes are an easy target. They are often considered unsightly and unfair, and are believed to be the result of homeowners manipulating or exploiting existing zoning laws to maximize their size and the number of people they can house.

Monster homes do sometimes violate building regulations, and there already are penalties in place to address that. Still, the Honolulu City Council is considering a bill that would dramatically increase those penalties.

But just as scientist Frankenstein needed to reflect on his actions, we need to ask why monster homes came to be in the first place.

Fortunately, there are solutions that do not require torches or pitchforks. We simply have to put an end to the conditions that have created the monster homes.

Bigger fines and more regulations will likely encourage builders to find more loopholes to mutate the monster. Instead, we need to look at ways to grow housing to remove the incentive to build monster homes.

If we had enough regulatory flexibility to build multiunit structures in areas zoned for single-family homes, there would be no need for monster homes. Where we now have monster homes, we could have duplexes, triplexes or single-family homes with ohana units.

That’s why my colleagues and I at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii have been promoting regulatory changes that would allow lot-splitting, smaller lots, duplexes and triplexes in single-family lots and accessory dwelling units.

We also have proposed relaxing the rules regarding parking minimums, floor area ratios and setbacks — the kinds of details that are needed in order to make these broader reforms possible.

When it comes to monster homes, our state and county governments have played the role of Victor Frankenstein, recklessly creating the conditions for the monsters to grow.

As long as they resist moving away from these conditions, monster homes will persist.

All we need to drive a stake through the heart of monster homes is to pass reforms that will allow for more creative housing solutions.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Oct. 28, 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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