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‘Yes in God’s backyard’ bill another way to boost housing

The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration by the House Committees on Housing and Water and Land on Feb. 15, 2024.
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Feb. 15, 2024, 9 a.m.
Hawaii State Capitol
Conference Room 430 and Videoconference

To: House Committee on Housing
      Luke Evslin, Chair
      Micah Aiu, Vice-Chair

 To: House Committee on Water and Land
       Linda Ichiyama, Chair
       Mahina Poepoe, Vice-Chair

 From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
            Ted Kefalas, Director of Strategic Campaigns

 COMMENTS IN SUPPORT OF HB2007 HD1 — RELATING TO HOUSING

 Aloha Chairs Evslin and Ichiyama, Vice-Chairs Aiu and Poepoe, and members of the Committees,

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its support for HB2007 HD1, which would allow religious institutions, medical facilities and schools to build housing on their land by-right, subject to certain conditions.

We commend the Legislature for looking to increase Hawaii’s housing supply through zoning reform. As we discussed in a recent report, “How to facilitate more homebuilding in Hawaii,” zoning reform can play a pivotal role in lowering housing prices and providing certainty to builders.

In the report, we considered by-right approvals, which “refer to projects that can proceed automatically without discretionary approval from a neighborhood board, planning department, planning commission or county council.”[1]

By-right approvals do not allow unrestricted development; instead, they set up rules beforehand — such as on densities and uses — and let proceed any project that complies with those rules.

Because many nonprofits have limited access to financing and little expertise in managing the development process, uncertainty in the approval process can stop charitable housing projects before they begin.[2]

To help solve this problem, HB2007  proposes a creative approach pioneered last year by California. The Golden State’s “Yes in God’s backyard” law allowed certain religious and educational institutions to build housing on lands they own, subject to some affordability and density restrictions.

One way in which HB2007 might benefit from California’s experience is in its density requirements. The California YIGBY law provides for two different levels of housing density. In non-residential zones, it allows up to 40 dwelling units per acre (43,560 sq. ft). In residential zones, it allows for a density of 10 to 30 dwelling units per acre.

Currently, HB2007 allows for a minimum of 10 units per acre, which would create a minimum lot size of 4,300 square feet. However, the intent of this bill would be better met by a minimum of 20 units per acre, which would bring it closer to the split-lot and subdivision sizes raised in HB1630.

With this amendment, the first paragraph of Section 46-4(d) would read:

(d)  Notwithstanding any law, ordinance, or standard to the contrary, a religious institution, educational institution, or medical institution may build dwelling units on a parcel of land the institution owns that is within the state urban land use district; provided that a county may impose development standards as authorized under this section; provided further that a county shall not require a special use permit, conditional use permit, or other non-ministerial review for dwelling units developed under this subsection; provided further that a county shall allow for at least twenty dwelling units per acre.

This minor change would not require nonprofit institutions to build 20 dwelling units per acre. However, it would provide them with greater flexibility in determining the type of units and density that would best meet the needs of the institution and the community.

In Hawaii, allowing schools, hospitals and religious institutions to create housing on their own properties would help them with their recruitment and retention issues[3] by enabling them to more easily provide affordable housing for their employees.

Nonprofit institutions that had been prevented from creating housing for their own staff would be able to offer a convenient on-campus housing benefit, thereby freeing up housing elsewhere throughout the islands for other homebuyers.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Ted Kefalas
Director of Strategic Campaigns
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
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[1] Jonathan Helton, “How to facilitate more homebuilding in Hawaii,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, p. 16.
[2]Hayashi on a mission to help Hawaii churches provide housing,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Nov. 15, 2023.
[3] Allyson Blair, “On Hawaii Island, a desperate request to house traveling nurses key to patient care,” Hawaii News Now, Feb. 21, 202

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