I grew up in an idyllic suburban neighborhood in Wailua. Kids and dogs roamed free. There were no fences, no worrisome neighbors, and no abandoned vehicles. Every lot had a big yard facing the street with a few fruit trees behind the house. It wasn’t quiet— but it always felt peaceful.

Just like some beaches are nicer than others, I assumed that our community was just a force of nature. A random occurrence which we were lucky to be living in.

I was wrong.

Sometime in the period after I was old enough to remember, but before I was able to recognize my own privilege, a neighbor down the street converted their garage into a rental unit. Not only did this violate the character of our low density neighborhood, but it was also against our residential zoning ordinance.

Like all good communities, there was a neighborhood meeting to notify the offending family. And everyone showed up.

“But, it’s the only way that we can afford to live here,” pleaded the guilty woman.

“Then you shouldn’t live here,” responded her accuser.

In the rare and brutal presence of honesty, the room went silent.

If we couldn’t build a rental, then it didn’t seem fair for someone else to build a rental. That much I understood.

Wailua on Kauai is updating its growth management plan.

Wailua is a residential district on Kauai.

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But, the part that I didn’t want to understand— that part of me still doesn’t want to understand— is that the same regulations that gave my street its unique character also ensured that low-income families could never live there. That they couldn’t benefit from the same life-long opportunities provided by a childhood of safe streets and well-connected neighbors (the research on this is overwhelmingly clear).

And this exclusivity isn’t just an effect of residential ordinances— it is, and always has been, the entire point.

In 1908 Los Angeles became the first city to adopt a comprehensive residential zoning ordinance which was meant to protect the property values of high-income areas. Baltimore followed quickly in 1910 with a race-based zoning code targeted specifically at containing black residents in isolated neighborhoods. Then southern cities developed increasingly explicit racial ordinances like prohibitions against selling a home to a black person in a majority white neighborhood. While race-based zoning was ruled unconstitutional in 1917, the exclusionary ideas simply morphed into residential zoning ordinances like the low-density lots which helped create the character of my neighborhood.

Today, nearly every suburban neighborhood around the country is built behind an invisible barrier to entry. Most commonly (80 percent of jurisdictions) that means minimum lot sizes, but nearly as common are prohibitions against more than three unrelated individuals in one home, regulations against multifamily housing units and onerous permitting processes that (including the cost of time) add an average of 25 percent to the cost of building in America.

If you prohibit families from installing an extra kitchen, then you are also effectively prohibiting multi-generational families from a neighborhood. And if you only allow large lots, then you are barring entry to low-income families.

As a Brookings Institute Paper highlighted: “There is strong support from case law, popular accounts, and the academic literature that local governments often adopt exclusive large-lot zoning, minimum house size requirements, and bans on secondary units precisely to make their housing more expensive and thereby indirectly exclude lower-income racial and ethnic minorities.”

Which is why studies continue to show a “strong and significant … relationship between low-density zoning and racial segregation.”

But, we all know this.

What ethnic group lives predominately in Hanamaulu? Princeville? Kalihi? Kahala? Do they live there because they have the freedom to choose, or is it because of economic exclusion from other areas? We know the answers, but we avoid the question because it exposes the myth of the melting pot.

As I mentioned in my column last week, the median price of a Kauai home is $600,000, 45 percent of sales are to overseas buyers and 68 percent of new homes built since 1995 have been on either low-density residential lots or agricultural/open-zoned land.

And, as the recent Kauai General Plan Update Land Use Buildout Analysis clearly states, “if all existing and projected residential dwellings were located entirely on Residential-zoned parcels, the supply of existing Residential-zoned parcels falls slightly short to accommodate the 2035 projected population.”

Put that all together, and we have a current growth model that forces us to utilize our agricultural land for home construction because there isn’t enough density in the residential districts. Yet, these low-density parcels are too expensive for the average Kauai family. And since we lack adequate higher-density residential districts, there’s literally no where to go.

We have a current growth model that forces us to utilize our agricultural land for home construction because there isn’t enough density in the residential districts.

Growth management can either add to this problem — by managing growth through development moratoriums, more low-density zoning, and permitting caps — or it can begin to reverse it.

That same Brookings Institute Paper that I mentioned earlier explored the policies which have been shown to “break the chain of exclusion” such as: increasing densities, mandating a mix of housing types, delineating clear growth boundaries (which leads to more multi-family housing inside the town cores), increasing access to public transportation, reducing regulatory delays in the permitting process, and by creating walkable neighborhoods and access to transit (which reduce the high cost burden of transportation).

But, as the paper warns, there is a fine balance point between a growth management program which brings about higher housing costs because it doesn’t allow for enough growth, and one which allows for too much growth and creates sprawl (which, as I’ve written about before, comes with its own set of problems).

And none of these policies can be enacted in a vacuum. You can’t delineate growth boundaries without increasing density and you can’t increase density without planning for a mix of housing types and uses. You can’t expect a mix of housing types if there are long regulatory delays and you can’t increase the density of town cores without simultaneously building adequate multimodal transportation options.

Which is why our current General Plan Update process is so important for the future of Kauai. A draft version of the General Plan will be released in October (which we’ll cover in a future column), but you can see an overview of the draft policies and provide your input here.

So, what happened with our offending neighbor? As the law required, they shut down the rental.

I recently took a walk through my old neighborhood. The houses looked nicer than I remembered, the cars were newer and it was quiet.

But the only children playing were in the distant fog of my memory. The homes were all occupied, but the streets were completely empty.

What are the legal limits to growth management, and what exactly is the county currently doing? Both of those are topics for future columns.

Disclosure: Luke Evslin is a member of the Kauai General Plan Community Advisory Committee.

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