Maui TVR phase-out wrong means for good goal

Kamaole Sands in Kīhei is among the projects targeted by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen.

The following commentary was first published on June 22, 2024, by the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle.

By Keli‘i Akina

It’s hard to criticize Maui Mayor Richard Bissen’s stated motive for wanting to phase out more than 7,000 transient vacation rentals on Maui within an 18-month period.

In his May 2 news conference announcing his plan, Mayor Bissen said his priority was to secure housing for Maui’s local residents — and who can argue with that?

The whole state has had a housing crisis for years — as Gov. Josh Green declared when he issued his housing emergency proclamations in July 2023 — and Maui’s became even worse after the horrific August 2023 wildfires that wiped out almost 2,000 homes from the county’s already skimpy housing stock.

But even Gov. Green’s emergency order didn’t specifically target short-term rentals. Instead, he aimed his edict at what virtually all local economists realize is the main cause of Hawaii’s housing crisis — the state’s extremely high number of land-use and other housing-related regulations that have hindered homebuilding.

At his news conference, Mayor Bissen gave no indication that he recognized this.

Asked whether he expected any pushback to his plan from “any of the partners involved in the repercussions of this bill,” he responded:

“I think the short answer is yes, and that’s why it hasn’t been done all this time. That’s why it’s been sitting, and sort of festering. It hasn’t gotten better and it’s not gonna get better.”

In effect, the good mayor was implying that he had exhausted all his options and nothing would get better unless he enacted his legally dubious and economically dangerous plan to convert about a third of Maui’s short-term rentals to owner-occupied or long-term rental housing.

Tampering with property rights and endangering a major driver of Maui’s economy, however, is not the best way to go.

In fact, Maui lawmakers have not exhausted all their policymaking options. They have made some strides in some areas, but there still are many regulatory obstacles they could remove to encourage homebuilding.

For example, the Council currently is considering Bill 71 (2024), which would increase the allowable density of second dwellings on ag lots.

And there are two bills that were approved in February by the Maui Planning Commission that would increase the number of homes per lot and allow more small kitchens per dwelling.

As outlined in the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii report “How to facilitate more homebuilding in Hawaii,”

Maui lawmakers could also encourage more mixed-use development, make it easier to build multifamily housing, expand floor area ratios, reduce or eliminate parking requirements, allow lot-splitting, reduce setbacks, allow smaller lots and more.

It’s great that the county recently contracted with a private firm to help it process building applications, which now are being issued more quickly. But if it isn’t already, this arrangement should be made permanent.

The county also could speed up permitting by reducing the number of things that need to be permitted, increasing self-certification and implementing by-right approvals, whereby construction can proceed automatically because the proposed projects meet all zoning requirements.

There are many other issues Maui County could address to ease homebuilding — especially for displaced residents of Maui’s fire-ravaged areas who are desperate to rebuild their homes but have had to wait for permitting authorities to get out of the way.

Mayor Bissen deserves credit for doing what he thinks is right. As he said at his May 2 news conference: “You don’t always go into a situation because you think it’s gonna be easy. You go into a situation because you think it’s right.”

My concern, however, is that he can be right about the goal — finding housing for Maui’s local residents — but not about the means to achieving that goal.

The fact is, he and other Maui lawmakers have not exhausted all their policy options — such as making a concerted effort to roll back the many useless homebuilding regulations — and unless they do, the housing situation on Maui truly is “not gonna get better.”

Keli’i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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