How to take politics out of housing in Hawaii

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By Keli‘i Akina

Except for maybe a few outliers, I think virtually everyone in Hawaii agrees that we need more affordable housing, right?

So why, then, do we so often see such strident public opposition to new projects or zoning reforms that might expand the stock of housing for our families, friends and others in need of shelter?

The most recent example of this comes from Maui, where just this week the County Council killed a housing project that would have created 28 affordable units in Kihei.

Opponents cited potential flooding and traffic jams as reasons for stopping the project. Those concerns should be addressed, but they shouldn’t be sufficient to kill the creation of two dozen more homes.

For one thing, flooding is an insurance issue, not a policy issue, especially since insurance companies have been willing to insure other homes in that area.

Keli‘i Akina

As for traffic, that will always be an issue where new housing is created. But if more housing is a priority, then figuring out how to deal with the additional traffic is just something the county needs to prioritize as well.

Another recent example: In June, the Maui County Council rejected a proposal that would have allowed vacant spaces in industrial areas such as Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center to be converted into apartments. The mall manager and neighboring local businesses were in favor of the change, as were proponents of affordable housing. But the Council voted down the proposed zoning reform, citing the need for more community input and vague concerns about noise.

“Community input” sounds positive and democratic, but in modern Hawaii, it too often is the way to thwart additional housing. The fact is, there are always dozens of reasons that neighbors can give for stopping new homebuilding — including even “changing the character of the neighborhood.” Two years ago, that concern was enough to persuade the Honolulu City Council to kill a 73-unit affordable housing project in Kailua.

I get it that many people don’t like change. But that goes to the core of the problem we face in our quest to build more housing. The people who are able to testify against a project are generally those who already have homes. The people in need of housing often don’t have the necessary information or political clout to combat organized local opposition.

That’s why the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, of which I am president, often testifies in favor of “by right” building and zoning. That is, any proposed construction that conforms to the existing land-use and building codes should be allowed to proceed “by right” — without the need for more governmental approvals, variances or special permissions.

Without by-right development and homebuilding, you end up with the problem we have now, which is basically the “Not In My Backyard” movement. In April, the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i issued a report that talked about how NIMBYism has become a major contributor to Hawaii’s acute lack of housing.

“Because developments often require county council approval and may involve pressure from various stakeholders,” it said, “projects can be rejected because of a perceived lack of community support, even if the project could hold significant benefits for future residents of the community or for the larger housing market.”

Some lawmakers are aware of how this kind of political pressure can sideline perfectly reasonable housing initiatives. After the Maui County Council voted down the zoning change to allow residential construction near the mall, Councilmember Tasha Kama told Maui Now that she wondered how new housing would ever get approved.

 “If not here, where?” she said.

I appreciate the importance of community action and admire activists who work to improve their neighborhoods. But we cannot ignore the fact that anti-development activism is a major contributor to our state’s housing crisis.

In its place, we need to implement policies that favor by-right development, streamline the approval process and take the politics out of homebuilding. Such reform is essential if we wish to encourage new homebuilding and make our state more affordable.
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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 limited, 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.