YIGBY law would be “dream situation” for Hawaii housing

Hawaii’s churches want to help solve the state’s housing crisis. Why are we making it so difficult for them?

On this week’s episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, my Grassroot Institute of Hawaii colleague Ted Kefalas stood in for me as the host to interview the Rev. Joshua Hayashi, chief executive officer of Mission Management Co.

Hayashi’s organization focuses on helping churches achieve their goals through housing or other community-oriented structures. Sometimes that means relocating a daycare center or organizing a farmer’s market to raise funds.

And sometimes it means creating affordable housing on church-owned land.

Hayashi said church-owned properties represent great potential to address Hawaii’s shortage of housing.

“If people knew how strategic these properties were,” he told Ted, “the game could change in how we talk about affordable housing.”

Hayashi said the United Church of Christ alone has about 150 churches throughout the islands, and if all the religious denominations in Hawaii combined their properties, they would qualify as one of the state’s five largest landholders.

Moreover, he said, their properties often are in prime areas, near the center of “every little town,” which creates a rare opportunity to build housing in areas that would usually be considered too expensive for affordable development.

You might be wondering why churches, which are not driven by profits like most homebuilders, would be interested in building housing. Hayashi had an answer for that question.

“Churches can have a mission,” he said, but they also need “some form of sustainability,” so maximizing the value of their lands — “with the right controls” — could help them survive.

Hayashi said a few projects of this kind are already in the works, including an 80-unit affordable housing project in Wailuku on Maui. But there also are significant roadblocks because the elements of Hawaii’s regulatory framework that are geared toward preventing “predatory behavior” by developers can also thwart new homebuilding.

For example, a church in Waipahu on Oahu wanted to provide housing, but the project fell apart when church leaders learned that it could take six or seven years — at least — just to get the permits.

Hayashi said it would be ideal if state lawmakers were to adopt a “Yes in God’s Backyard” law, similar to the one California recently enacted. That law allows churches and other nonprofits to build housing on their land “by right” — that is, without the need for discretionary approvals from any government bodies. If a housing project meets all the existing codes, then it is allowed to proceed.

Hayashi said half a dozen projects would be able to sail through the approval process if Hawaii were to adopt a YIGBY law.

He added that unless churches are allowed to “mobilize on some of these properties” relatively quickly — “in less than six or seven years” — many of those properties likely will be abandoned or sold.

“To me,” Hayashi said, “the YIGBY [law would be] the dream situation. If we could do that, something could really happen.”

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Nov. 11, 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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