Hawaii can’t afford inaction on housing reform

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By Keli‘i Akina

Through the years, each of my weekly letters to you has concluded with the Hawaiian phrase “E hana kākou” (“Let’s work together”) as a reminder of how important it is for us to find common ground as we work toward establishing a more free and prosperous Hawaii for all.

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Recently, that’s been happening in spades, especially on the housing issue.

Over the past few months, my colleagues and I at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii have joined with many state and county lawmakers and community organizations to promote research-backed proposals that could help end what our governor elevated last July to emergency status: the state’s housing shortage and high home prices.

Recommended policies have included streamlining homebuilding permitting procedures and reforming zoning laws to allow more homes in Hawaii’s urban cores, where residential housing and infrastructure already exist.

Two bills in particular at the 2024 Legislature that have gained wide support, HB1630 and SB3202, would legalize smaller homes on smaller lots.

But sometimes it’s hard to get absolutely everyone on board for a specific program, no matter how good the goal, and all of that encouraging collaboration I was talking about now is at risk.

“Not in my backyard” advocates, or NIMBYs as they are called, turned up on Thursday at a meeting of the Honolulu City Council’s Committee on Planning and the Economy to voice strong support for a proposed county resolution that would urge the state Legislature to reject those two bills.

Sad to say, the committee approved Resolution 24-65, which contains most of the usual anti-housing rhetoric, and even claims that making it easier to create smaller, more affordable homes would somehow result in more so-called monster homes.

This unfortunate campaign of misinformation and scare tactics has emerged at the eleventh hour to discredit the very zoning strategies that cities across the country, and even around the world, have implemented with great success.

As I wrote to you five weeks ago — in a letter optimistically titled “True housing reform seems a strong possibility” — NPR reported that “changing zoning rules to allow more housing” is “the hottest trend in U.S. cities.”

And that’s where the two bills HB1630 and SB3202 come into the picture. As Kealii Lopez of AARP Hawaii and Sterling Higa of Housing Hawaii’s Future wrote in Honolulu Civil Beat on Wednesday, Hawaii needs more housing options for young professionals, families and kupuna, and enacting either of these two bills would help make that happen.

Opponents of such reforms claim that their neighborhoods will change. But change will happen anyway. The only questions are how slowly and at what cost?

The current cost is that our friends and family are leaving the islands in record numbers for more affordable lives on the mainland.

I understand the nostalgia for the past, but it is time for us to acknowledge that the Hawaii of 30, 40, 50 years ago cannot be the Hawaii of today — and that the status quo our NIMBY friends demand is simply not sustainable.

I hope our state lawmakers will be courageous enough to do the right thing for Hawaii and open the door to change.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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Grassroot Institute of Hawaii is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, the free market and accountable government. Through research papers, policy briefings, commentaries and conferences, the Institute seeks to educate and inform Hawaii's policy makers, news media and general public. Committed to its independence, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii neither seeks nor accepts government funding. The institute is a 501(c)(3) organization supported by all those who share a concern for Hawaii's future and an appreciation of the role of sound ideas and more informed choices.

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