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What I said to the governor about Maui housing

When facing a challenge such as rebuilding Lahaina, it’s important to work together to get the best possible outcome.

Everyone involved won’t always agree on the best approach, but open discussion and debate will give the public a say to help find the best route forward.

That’s why on Thursday, as president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, I sent a memo to key government officials who collaborated with the Hawaii Community Foundation, the American Red Cross and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement to create the $500 million Maui Interim Housing Plan, which seeks to find housing for the many Maui residents displaced by the tragic August 2023 wildfires.

Specifically, I wrote to Gov. Josh Green, Mayor Richard Bissen, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Robert Fenton Jr., and all the members of the Maui County Council and Hawaii State Legislature.

In my memo, I first praised the plan, noting that it is “directionally sound” and should help in the mission to speedily provide temporary housing. But I also noted there are ways to make it better, especially regarding the state’s goal of constructing 1,050 temporary and permanent housing units by July of this year. I detailed six proposals:

>> Identify state- and county-owned parcels near sewer and water infrastructure that could be speedily available for homebuilding.

>> Maximize the amount of housing that can be built within budget and on the available land. For example, instead of building one home on an 1,800-square-foot, build two. In general, build duplexes, triplexes or accessory dwelling units wherever possible. This might require waiving zoning density restrictions, but that could easily be done by emergency proclamation at either the state or county level.

>> Let private builders participate in providing emergency housing, especially where there is already access to existing infrastructure. The state and Maui County could encourage these efforts by waiving density restrictions and building and impact fees for private landowners who build housing for Maui fire victims.

>> Determine whether certain occupational licensing laws should be waived so out-of-state contractors and skilled tradespeople can help with local housing construction. Experts have suggested that the state might not have enough skilled tradespeople to assist with our construction goals. If that is true, we need to do something about it.

>> Exempt landlords participating in the housing program from having to pay state and county general excise and transient accommodations taxes on any funds received from the state, Maui County, FEMA, the Red Cross or the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

>> Amend Maui’s emergency permitting law to waive building permit fees, speed approval times and broaden the kinds of buildings covered by the statute, which currently applies to only “one-and-two family dwellings and accessory dwelling structures.”

If you would like to read the entire four-page memo I sent to the governor, Mayor Bissen and the others, you can find a copy here.

My hope is that our state and county officials will carefully consider the suggestions I offered to improve the current Maui Interim Housing Plan. I share their desire to address the needs of our Maui ohana, and am confident that we will have the greatest impact if we work together.
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This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Jan. 20, 2024. 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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