Maui can take lead in ‘Yes in God’s backyard’ housing

This article was originally published in The Maui News on Nov. 10, 2023.

Maui County should make it easier for churches and other charitable organizations to build housing on their lands.

Case in point: The nonprofit Family Life Center and King’s Cathedral in Kahului are partnering to put up 85 modular homes on 10 acres of the church’s land.

These homes, dubbed the Ohana Hope Village, are intended to provide temporary shelter to Lahaina residents displaced by the Aug. 8 wildfires. Family Life Center plans to offer these homes rent-free to families, especially those with young children.

The King’s Cathedral’s land is zoned for agriculture. This designation normally allows only two houses on two acres, which would limit the project to just 10 homes — a far cry from the 85 units planned.

The Maui County Code states that agricultural zoning is designed to “discourage developing or subdividing lands within the agricultural district for residential uses, thereby preserving agricultural lands and allowing proper planning of land use and infrastructure development.”

Housing projects can get an exemption to build more than two houses per two acres, but it isn’t always easy to do so.

Because of the emergency proclamation in place after the wildfires, Ohana Hope Village is an exception. According to a Maui County spokesperson, the housing project is in the process of getting a temporary structures permit.

However, in other circumstances, a housing project like this would have to go through a time-intensive process and undergo a public hearing to receive a special use permit from the Maui Planning Commission. The developer also would have to submit documentation and pay a nonrefundable fee of $2,629. And, there’s no guarantee it would pass the commission; unforeseen public opposition could sink or stall much-needed projects.

This entire process could be avoided, however, if Hawaii were to follow California’s lead and allow religious and other nonprofit organizations to build housing on their own lands without special permission.

California’s new “Yes in God’s backyard” law, as advocates call it, is good public policy. It lets religious and higher education institutions build on their own lands without needing special permission from the local government or approval under California’s strict environmental law.

The law didn’t abolish all restrictions on what churches and schools can build. It lessened zoning restrictions and fees, but it isn’t possible to haphazardly build a school building or a 20-story condo in the middle of a neighborhood, for example.

It also required that housing built by religious or educational institutions be affordable rentals, although a portion can be used to house the nonprofit’s staff. The bill isn’t perfect, but it makes sense.

At the state level, Hawaii had a chance to one-up California earlier this year, when a similar measure, House Bill 814, was introduced in the state Legislature. It would have established a similar process to California’s “Yes in God’s backyard” law, loosening zoning requirements for religious and educational institutions and hospitals, which face challenges recruiting health care and teaching staff because of Hawaii’s housing prices.

Alas, the bill failed. Hawaii lawmakers will have a chance to reintroduce and pass the bill in the upcoming legislative session. But Maui County need not wait on the state’s lead. County lawmakers could easily enact their own “Yes in God’s backyard” law to ease the county’s housing crisis.

This would make projects such as the proposed Ohana Hope Village more viable and allow Maui’s charitable organizations to do what they do best: Serve those in need.

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