Emergency order for housing welcome, but also worrisome

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By Keli‘i Akina

Gov. Josh Green issued an emergency proclamation this week aimed at easing Hawaii’s housing crisis, and from its very first words, it was impressive.

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Much of the proclamation I could have written myself — especially the many “whereas” justifications for why the emergency order was issued — which states many of the points I’ve been making for years regarding the bad policy and inaction that have characterized Hawaii’s approach to homebuilding.

The proclamation emphasizes that housing growth in Hawaii has been constrained by overregulation, and it connects the dots between the state’s permitting policies and Hawaii’s high home prices. 

And in a wholly unexpected move, it waives regulations, streamlines approvals and creates a task force that has the explicit duty to increase Hawaii’s housing supply. 

Housing advocates from all parts of the political spectrum have been united in telling lawmakers we must clear away these regulations and excessive permitting requirements to spur growth and lower the cost of housing in our state.

So while I am troubled that the governor has resorted to issuing an emergency order to address a decades-long issue, I am impressed by his willingness to listen to diverse voices and act on what he has learned. His eagerness to make a difference is refreshing and has the potential to be game-changing for our state.

The problem until now — for the most part — has been the Legislature. Despite having data and policy remedies immediately available to them, our legislators have been slow to act. Even small reform proposals end up drowning in legislative debate.

Under these circumstances, I understand why the governor looked at this political and bureaucratic morass and decided to take drastic action. With one stroke of the pen, the governor did what many of us have been asking policymakers to do for years.

In effect, Gov. Green has created a housing “sandbox” that will give us a good opportunity to identify what works, what can be improved and what permanent changes can be made to encourage long-term housing growth in our state.

The bad news — and there is bad news — is that the very nature of the governor’s action could limit its effectiveness. By their nature, emergency orders are temporary measures. So the clock is already ticking on Hawaii’s new, streamlined approach to affordable housing.

Moreover, the constitutional issues inherent in using emergency powers in this way leave the much-needed reforms open to legal challenge. Eventually, these issues must be dealt with to ensure the stability of our democratic process. As representatives of the people, this is the Legislature’s responsibility.

But again, looking at this from the bright side, the Legislature should consider the governor’s proclamation as a catalyst to change Hawaii’s housing laws and reduce overregulation permanently. It can even be viewed as an experiment that might finally show that regulations are indeed the cause of our housing problems.

Gov. Green has initiated a bold effort to end the housing shortage. Now the ball is in the Legislature’s court.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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