Could fixing our housing crisis really be so simple?

Some Hawaii policymakers might say it’s not possible to address Hawaii’s housing crisis without spending big bucks on public construction projects.

But I have exciting news. Not only is it possible, my team at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has produced a roadmap that can help make it happen.

Our latest report, written by Grassroot policy researcher Jonathan Helton, offers an overview of the different policies Hawaii lawmakers could embrace to help boost the state’s housing supply relatively quickly and at no cost to Hawaii taxpayers.

Titled “How to facilitate more homebuilding in Hawaii,” the report does not call for government housing programs, nor does it present a one-size-fits-all “solution” to the housing crisis. Rather, it identifies changes that legislators could make as soon as possible without infringing on property rights or depleting state or county funds.

Many of the proposals in the report do not require the government to do much more than remove the barriers that have prevented innovation and frustrated the construction of new homes to begin with.

For example, a policy called “adaptive reuse” would permit homebuilders to more easily convert existing office buildings to residential use. This is not only financially practical but also more environmentally friendly.

Another helpful reform would be for Hawaii’s counties to expand their mixed-use zoning areas. This would encourage homes and businesses to co-exist on the same block, or even in the same building, which would promote walkable neighborhoods and creative housing solutions.

The new Grassroot policy brief also talks about the importance of making it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, commonly known in Hawaii as ohana units. We often think of ADUs as housing for elderly relatives — hence the term “ohana homes” — but they also have demonstrated great potential as an affordable rental option.

Helton also suggests removing regulations that require a certain number of parking spaces for homes and businesses — because land devoted to parking is land that cannot be used for living.

But perhaps the option with the most potential to increase our much-needed housing supply is “upzoning.” In general, the concept refers to allowing more homes such as duplexes, triplexes and even small “starter homes” to be built where formerly there were only single-family dwellings surrounded by large yards.

Elements of upzoning include lot-splitting, reducing setbacks and adjusting floor area ratios. If applied in a comprehensive manner, upzoning could yield big rewards.

Taken together, all of these policy options are wonderful ideas that Hawaii lawmakers would do well to implement.

But as Helton makes clear, our legislators also need to put an end to Hawaii’s notorious permitting and approval delays. After all, what good is a plan to build more housing if you cannot obtain the permits to build in a timely, cost-effective manner?

Helton suggests two policy reforms to address this issue. First, the counties could adopt self-certification programs that allow qualified architects to vouch for building plans themselves — perhaps subject to random audits by city officials to make sure they are not violating zoning or building code requirements.

Honolulu recently adopted such a plan, following in the footsteps of cities such as Chicago and New York that have successfully been using self-permitting for decades.

The second permitting reform would be to authorize “by right” approvals so projects that meet all the legal requirements can proceed without discretionary approvals from neighborhood boards, planning departments or county councils.

Most important, this new report demonstrates how much we can do to grow housing in Hawaii simply by reforming existing regulations. And it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. These are all tried-and-true solutions that have been proven throughout the nation and around the world to facilitate the creation of new housing.

We cannot solve Hawaii’s housing crisis overnight, but there are plenty of ways we can make housing more affordable and available without burdening taxpayers — and my team’s new report outlines what some of those ways could be.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Dec. 16, 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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