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Let’s try a bottom-up approach to more homebuilding.

Photo by Charley Myers

The following commentary was published originally in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle on Jan. 8, 2024.
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Hawaii’s housing crisis sometimes seems like a formidable monster that can only be defeated by a magical, cure-all solution.

But could a lot of little policy changes maybe achieve the same big goal?

Yes, they could. Small, focused policies could free up homebuilders and generate a wave of new housing construction, which would increase supply, put downward pressure on home costs and make Hawaii more affordable for all.

So what kinds of little policy changes am I talking about?

According to a new report just issued by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, they could include allowing more duplexes, smaller lots, accessory dwelling units and office-to-housing building conversions, plus parking reform, permitting reforms and a range of other policies that separately might not seem like much, but together could really make a big difference.

The new report is titled “How to facilitate more homebuilding in Hawaii,” and was written by Grassroot policy researcher Jonathan Helton. It was intended for a broad audience, but especially for state and county lawmakers who can do something about putting many of its recommendations into practice.

The report should especially be welcomed by anyone concerned about “keeping the country country,” since it is focused mostly on homebuilding in Hawaii’s urban cores.

As Helton explained during his recent interview with radio host Johnny Miro of the H. Hawaii Media network, Hawaii’s urban centers are where essential infrastructure such as roads and utilities already exists, which would not only make it easier and less expensive to build homes, but also help limit urban sprawl

.In the introduction to the policy brief, I mention that these suggested reforms have been proven around the world to facilitate the creation of more housing — at a lower cost for homebuyers and at no cost to taxpayers. I think that is something we could all agree would be a win-win for Hawaii.

Cities that have used such reforms to great success include Houston, Texas, which changed its laws in 1998 and again in 2013 to allow buildings on smaller lots. The result? Homebuilders there constructed smaller houses at more affordable price points.

In addition, Auckland, New Zealand, authorized denser homebuilding in three-fourths of the city in 2016. Home construction subsequently increased and home prices declined.

None of this should come as a surprise. When a state or city removes barriers to housing, it incentivizes more housing. There are technical concerns, such as land availability or road construction, but in general, these types of zoning changes work — and they could work in Hawaii.

Of course, zoning laws are only half the picture. Hawaii’s permitting and approval processes also get in the way of new housing. Researchers have documented that it can take years for a housing project in Hawaii to go from concept to completion.

To remedy this, Helton explains how counties could expand the use of “by right” approvals and self-certification to cut down on wait times.

If you are interested in the details of this new report, you can read or download a copy at www.grassrootinstitute.org.

My overall point is this: We need to try the bottom-up approach to relieving Hawaii’s housing crunch. Thinking small is the way to go.

We have to stop launching more over-budget government projects or new bureaucracies. We cannot count on top-down mandates and massive government spending to resolve the issue.

At this point, our best hope is to remove the many small barriers that have impeded homebuilding in Hawaii and let homebuilders, homeowners, renters and everyday citizens do what they can to make Hawaii a place where we all can live and prosper.

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