How to reduce permit delays for Hawaii homebuilding

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By Keli‘i Akina

Albert Einstein once pointed out, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

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That’s good advice for anyone trying to address Hawaii’s acute lack of housing.

Two days ago, a colleague of mine at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Joe Kent, spoke to members of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce about how excessive regulation has contributed to the lack of housing in our state — and how more government intrusion won’t miraculously produce a different result.

Kent addressed the chamber’s permitting taskforce, which for four years has been looking into why applications for building permits on Hawaii island are taking so long to be processed.

You’ve probably heard that it can take a decade for a homebuilder to get the rights to build on a piece of land. But did you know that even the simplest changes and permits can face heavy delays? 

Joe pointed out that in Hawaii County, residential permits take about 143 days to issue. In Honolulu, it’s 108 days for residential projects and 432 days for commercial projects over $1 million. 

Several of the counties have conducted audits of their planning departments and permitting systems, and the conclusions are nearly always the same: The delays exist because of staffing shortages. 

If you looked at the problem like a bureaucrat, you would probably conclude that the way to fix the delay is to hire more staff — and that’s what several of the counties are doing. But it takes time to hire new staff, and, in any case, adding more staff is to miss the bigger picture.

In fact, Joe said Hawaii’s permitting departments could reduce their staff, if they simply reduce the number of required permits.

For example, Hawaii County’s overly-stringent building code requires permits for things such as sheds, fences, tents and some air-conditioning systems. Unfortunately, just about any substantial renovation you might want in Hawaii requires a county permit. And those permits are notoriously slow in coming.

Yes, there might be projects that have demonstrable health and safety concerns. But we don’t need to have permits for so many different things. Other states and counties across the country are able to operate safely and more efficiently with fewer local permits and building code requirements. 

Some — including Delta County and Montezuma County in Colorado; Arcosanti Urban Laboratory in Arizona; Wonder Valley in California; Brewster County, Marfa County and Terlingua, Texas; and Miller County, Missouri —  get by without any building codes or permit requirements at all. 

Other states, like in Tennessee, let local governments opt out of state building codes for one- and two-family dwellings.

In addition, permitting departments could outsource to the private sector. Houston, for example, uses an outside vendor as a relief valve to expedite the permitting process, and Honolulu certifies private inspectors to help as well.

Joe’s presentation made it clear that there are many ways to approach the permitting and regulatory delays that contribute to Hawaii’s housing crisis. 

Adding more public employees to our permitting departments and continuing as we have in the past would not be one of them. 

Let’s think a bit more outside the box, shall we?
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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