Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series on land use and transportation on Kauai. Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3

Here in Hawaii, our most effective affordable housing policy is the lack of enforcement against illegal rental units. As the market continues to lift home prices out of reach, local residents are being driven from single-family homes into converted garages, illegal home additions and overcrowded units. Three of the four rentals that I lived in as a college student and small business owner on Oahu were in clear violation of local zoning and density restrictions.

One was a duplex converted into three separate rentals; two of the others housed well above the maximum number of unrelated individuals legally allowed under the same roof.

But because these are the only affordable options available, the government’s only available option is to look the other way. One Kauai council member said at a recent meeting that the county shouldn’t crack down on people who’ve made improvements to their homes.

Keeping Kauai affordable and rural requires new approaches to affordable housing.

Keeping Kauai affordable and rural requires new approaches to affordable housing.

The Failure To Adjust

Hawaii has both the highest median rent in the nation (55 percent above national average) and the highest percentage of residents who spend more than 35 percent of their household income on their homes (including mortgage or rent, insurance and utilities).

And with Hawaii home values higher than ever, after rising 30 percent in just four years, we are drifting further from a solution.

“Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances,” writes Francis Fukuyama, in “The Origins of Political Order.” “When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change.”

Our lack of response to climate change and to increasing gun deaths represents political decay at a federal level. And when it comes to our worsening housing crisis, the entrenched resistance to change (try mentioning the need for increased density in polite company) is evidence of political decay at a local level. Hawaii competes in a global speculative market for housing, yet our local economy is based on service-sector jobs; and that creates a growing disconnect between wages and home prices.

So the “disjunction between existing institutions and present needs” continues to expand every year.

A Shift In Housing

That disjunction is why our Kauai County Council is currently considering two bills with the potential to begin a structural shift in housing for our island. Council member Arryl Kaneshiro introduced Bill 2634 and council members Mason Chock and Gary Hooser introduced Bill 2627.

Kaneshiro’s housing bill would allow the construction of multifamily dwelling units in all zoning districts. Currently, if you own land on Kauai with a density of six houses per acre or less (R-1 through R-6), your only building option is a single-family home. So if you’d like to use your available density to build a rental unit for a family member or to generate extra income, you need to construct an entirely new home rather than simply building an addition to your existing home. The requirement for separate structures, whether for financial or space considerations, acts as a deterrent to building out to the available densities. And that reduces the potential for affordable housing.

“It takes less money to build two houses together, compared to two separate houses, due to synergies such as shared walls or a shared roof,” Kaneshiro told me in an email. “And clustering provides cost savings, because you are bringing your utilities to one area rather than spreading it throughout the property. Clustering will also create more open space throughout the property.”

If the bill passes, the most likely outcome is an increase in duplexes and home additions. At one extreme end of the proposed bill, someone who owns an acre of R-6 zoned land could use all of that available density to build a six-apartment building, while leaving the rest of the land vacant. And if you own six acres at R-1, then you would have the option of building a six-apartment building while keeping the remaining land vacant. Local height restrictions and building codes would still apply.

“There is no change to their allowed density. The bill just allows for more building options,” Kaneshiro said. “There are many factors to consider as we move forward and try to address our housing needs, while at the same time protect our rural nature. How much density is acceptable? Where do we want to see that density? What do we want these houses to look like, etc.? All the while … the more restrictions we put on the type of house allowed, or the look of the house, the more difficult we actually make it to build.”

A Starting Point

While the Kaneshiro multifamily housing bill is directed specifically at the form of construction, the Hooser-Chock bill addresses both density and form by providing a legal pathway to build small and affordable rental units (known as ARUs) in Lihue. Units must be less than 800 square feet; they must be used for long-term rentals (not vacation rentals or home stays), and they cannot be converted into condominiums or subdivided.

“It’s very difficult to afford to live on an island with limited space and where the rest of the world wants to live,” Chock wrote in an email. “How can we afford to purchase or build a house when infrastructure costs alone can cost $30,000 or more? The ARU allows a cost efficient and readily available solution for us to take care of our family.” He said it could also address the dire need on Kauai for more housing inventory.

According to county projections, the population of Lihue will grow by 60 percent by 2035, reaching 23,465. But 87 percent of the available residentially zoned land in Lihue already has been developed, leaving our city center with a projected deficit of 1,700 homes by 2035. Either density needs to increase or people are going to have to move farther away from town, exacerbating our current infrastructure and traffic problems.

“If we continue to build out laterally, our impact will be greater, needing more roads, more cars, and thus more services which will end up costing us all more in the end,” said Chock. “We have the available infrastructure resources (sewer and water) already available in Lihue. By only targeting Lihue, we can use that community as a pilot program for the rest of the island. Lihue is less speculative than other areas on our island and the limited size of the ARU will help deter speculation.”

The lack of affordable housing is the single greatest issue facing Kauai. And when individuals and private organizations don’t have the power to solve a problem, the government needs to step in. That’s what they are there for. But these two bills aren’t the end of the road in the affordable housing crisis — they are only a starting point.

“This is just providing opportunity,” Kaneshiro said at last week’s council meeting. “It’s not a solve-all solution.”

Disclosure: In 2014, Luke Evslin volunteered for Mason Chock’s council campaign. 

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