To combat Oahu’s housing crisis authorities need to tap into a wide array of fixes. This means seizing on easy solutions whenever possible.

With that in mind, they should fast-track proposals to once again make it legal for homeowners on Oahu to rent out “accessory dwelling units” or “ohana units.” Such units were legal rentals from 1982 until 1992 when Honolulu decided to restrict residency to relatives of homeowners, except for some cases where that right has been grandfathered in.

These units include converted garages, small cottages in the yards of homes, and add-ons to the main structure of a home.

View of buildings near Piikoi Street and King Street areas featuring walk up apartments. ERIC PAPE STORY. 13 NOV 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.

Legalizing ohana units would provide much-needed housing for Honolulu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Owners of homes on single-family lots should also be allowed to build a second home on land if it is of a certain minimum size, assuming they satisfy other permitting requirements.

So it is with great interest that we watch Resolution 14-200, which is expected to be up for a vote by the City Council on Wednesday. It calls on the Caldwell administration to allow secondary construction on residential lots and open up ohana units to all.

Legitimizing already-existing units by making them into normal rentals and allowing the construction of others are two low-cost ways for the city to quickly boost the number of accessibly priced rental units on Oahu without the additional construction and government subsidies that sometimes spark strident opposition.

Not that there aren’t concerns. Some critics fear the prospect of increased population density in neighborhoods where parking could become more difficult and traffic might be aggravated on residential streets. Those issues need to be addressed.

By legalizing residents in already existing unofficial dwellings, landlords and formalized tenants are more apt to follow rules aimed at protecting themselves and, of perhaps greater import, to pay their share of taxes into state coffers.

But, in many cases, non-family members already live in many ohana units around Oahu — just not officially. So change would be less about increasing population density than officially acknowledging where it already exists.

And in places where new people move into housing that is sitting empty or that would be built specifically for this purpose, residents will often be dispersing into areas of the island with the core infrastructure to handle them.

There are many other likely benefits.

By legitimizing residents in unofficial dwellings, landlords and tenants are more apt to follow rules aimed at protecting themselves and, of perhaps greater import, to pay their share of taxes into state coffers.

Generally speaking, landlords who begin to receive monthly rent from tenants on their secondary units are less likely to be overburdened by their mortgage and may be more likely to spend to care for their home.

On the city’s side, this partial solution requires no battles over the city’s often controversial efforts to build additional housing. Nor would the city have to pay to build, facilitate or care for this additional housing stock since homeowners handle the construction and upkeep. Landlords of legitimate tenants might also be more likely to get suitable permits, which could translate into safety improvements.

These additional units often tend to be cheaper than small homes or apartments, and can help alleviate Honolulu’s shortage of units for people with low incomes.

More such units might help the city respond to ongoing demographic changes. Oahu has seen a notable increase in the numbers of single people — young or old — and couples without children. Such dwellings are generally suited for one or two people.

Critics argue that passage of a law on ohana dwellings would facilitate the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals. Let’s be honest: The current situation has already allowed for that. There are already rules covering vacation rentals, including requiring a minimum 30-day stay. Those rules need to be enforced.

Formalizing ohana housing is no silver bullet on an island where market rental prices are so out of sync with median incomes. It is why we need creative and financially astute solutions based on the overarching conviction that this crisis needs to be resolved. Putting people in structures that already exist, or that could be built by homeowners, would be a smart and potentially very helpful step.

For the resolution to become law, it needs to pass through a legislative obstacle course that could, some estimates say, take as long as a year to navigate.

Given this peripatetic path to change, Honolulu policymakers should remember that urgency should be as much of a driving force for them as it is for the many thousands of working families doubled and tripled up in housing because they can’t afford alternatives.

Another year without more affordable housing is too long.

About the Author