Denby Fawcett: Time To Cut Honolulu's Monster Houses Down To Size

I feel sad driving through the back streets of Kaimuki, Kapahulu and Kalihi, which once featured cottage residences surrounded by greenery with mango and lychee trees shading the small yards.

Now many of the fruit and plumeria trees have been chopped down to make way for two-story homes to accommodate additional family members priced out of buying their own homes. Local residents’ need for affordable housing is understandable.

But what’s infuriating and not understandable is that certain streets are increasingly hemmed in with structures up to three stories tall containing as many as 20 rooms built by real estate speculators. They are eager to sell the properties for prices higher than neighborhood norms or to turn the hulking structures into illegal apartment buildings. Nothing is done to protect view planes.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell in March signed into law a two-year moratorium on monster houses to give the Planning and Permitting Department (DPP) time to draft new rules to stop the increase of so-called monster houses — houses covering more than 70 percent of a lot. This is the start. The Honolulu Planning Commission will hear DPP’s proposed rules on October 17.

Large houses on relatively small lots, like this 15-bedroom, 12-bath home in Kapahulu, have raised a host of concerns among neighbors.

Courtesy of Christine Otto Zaa

Members of the advisory task force formed to help DPP come up with its proposed regulations are already criticizing the department’s new rules for failing to adequately address the monster house problem and for brushing off their suggestions on how to do it. Council member Trevor Ozawa, a monster house opponent, also thinks DPP’s new rules don’t go far enough.

In its submission to the Planning Commission, DPP says Oahu’s current residential development regulations were created almost half century ago. It says: “We find now that additional development standards are necessary to preserve and protect the character and livability of our residential areas.”

DPP says neighborhood opposition is twofold: people upset by the sheer size of the buildings, and the number of people living in them. The massive homes create neighborhood parking problems, hike property values and fill their neighborhoods with dormitories, vacation rentals and illegal apartment buildings pretending to be regular homes.

The proposed new rules set a cap on the size of building structures on all residential lots. The rules say that covered living space cannot exceed more than 70 percent of a residential lot’s size. Under the new proposal anyone who wants to cover more than 60 percent of their lot’s size with living space will have to increase the size of the side and rear lot setbacks from the current 5 feet to 8 feet.

In addition, the legislation kicks in stricter parking space requirements. When living space covers more than 60 percent of the lot, two additional parking spaces will be required and possibly more, depending on the size of the home. And when four or more parking spaces are required, they must be built with enough turn-around space in the lot to allow vehicles to exit the lot facing the front, not by backing out.

Too Much Concrete, Say Critics

Environmental planning consultant Trisha Kehaulani Watson-Sproat served on the community task force mandated by the moratorium bill to help come up with new regulations.

“DPP made it clear to us from the beginning it had no intention of incorporating any of the task force’s recommendations,” says Watson-Sproat. “DPP was not transparent. We were not given the minutes of meetings and the public was not allowed to come in even to witness the meetings. We got very little of what we wanted except for the cap on the size of what can be built.”

She says the DPP bill ignores some of the advisors’ recommendations to limit the number of wet bars in houses that can later be turned into additional kitchens. Some task force members also wanted to restrict every home to one laundry room. The restrictions they seek are aimed at preventing builders from later reconfiguring rooms into multiple illegal apartments.

Acting DPP director Kathy Sokugawa wrote in an email that DPP in its three meetings “considered everyone’s input and recommendations … the report systematically includes group members’ ideas, concerns and interests.”

In her submission to the Planning Commission, Sokugawa writes that DPP chose to focus on limiting the size of living space in all Oahu residential districts including child care facilities and meeting places to no more than 70 percent of the lot.

She says that the limit applies to all residences whether in Palolo, Kalihi or Kahala. She writes in her submission to the Planning Commission that a living space limit “will be easier to enforce and more difficult to falsify on plans than bedrooms, wet bars and laundry rooms.

This 4,500-square-foot house in St. Louis Heights house sits on a 7,200-square-foot lot. Critics of the city’s proposed regulations want a limit on the percentage of concrete covering any site.

Christine Otto Zaa

DPP calls its advisory group the Large Detached Homes Task Force, although the group calls itself the Monster House Task Force, a term DPP considers offensive. The task force is comprised of community members and professionals, as well as building trade advisors and representatives from public agencies such as the Honolulu Police and Fire Departments.

Watson-Sproat says DPP’s house size cap is a good start but the department’s proposed rules contain enough loopholes to allow monster homes to proliferate and, at their worst, allow residential lots to be 100 percent covered with concrete. DPP’s proposal has no limit on the amount of impervious surface surrounding a home.

“Allowing any lot to be pure concrete is not doing us any favors both in terms of aesthetics and water runoff,” says Honolulu City Council member Trevor Ozawa. “When people cover their lots with concrete they can cause flooding in their neighbors’ yards.”

Ozawa and some of the task force members will recommend to the planning commission that there should be a 75 percent limit on the amount of impervious surface on any lot, with the remaining surface to be permeable.

Ozawa has authored an alternative measure that the planning commission also will review at its Oct. 17 meeting. Ozawa’s proposal calls for a limit on wet bars, bathrooms and laundry rooms in homes.

Ozawa is also calling for a conditional use permit when anyone wants to try to exceed the 70 percent building size cap “to give the person who has exceptional circumstances to come before the City Council to try to prove their case.”

Budget Chair Council member Trevor Ozawa makes point Bill 35 about putting a cap on ride share services in Honolulu.

City Council member Trevor Ozawa, a critic of the proposed regulations, wants to restrict lots from being totally covered in concrete.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ozawa and some task force members also want DPP’s new rules to require that a residential lot must be 10,000 square feet before a property owner can build two detached structures on it. Under current law, the requirement is 7,500 square feet. Also, Ozawa wants to propose that residential zoned lots be 5,000 square feet before an owner can build a duplex. Currently a duplex can be built on a 3,500 square foot lot.

Task force advisor Marshall Hickox, the president-elect of the Building Industry Association says he is “vehemently opposed”  to DPP’s proposed new rules.

“DPP proposes reducing building densities and calls for more parking spaces and smaller living area to lot ratios,” he says. “But this does nothing to stop the construction of more illegal apartments in residential neighborhoods and instead is an assault on families wanting to maximize the building area of their lots and add ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) to their properties to supplement their incomes when home prices are going through the roof.”

He says the requirements for additional parking spaces for larger homes will not prevent additional cars from being on the roads and will further limit the space on which property owners can build to accommodate legitimate family needs for space.

Hickox is the president and co-owner of Homeworks Construction, Inc.  He says he is also upset by the way DPP treated the task force, “They gave no weight to the ideas we put forward. Our goal was to help, not be obstructionist. It was discouraging.”

Hickox says instead of new regulations DPP needs to do a better job of enforcing its rules already on the books. “Raise the fines for violators, hire more building inspectors with stronger powers of investigation and allow the police and fire departments to get involved when there are parking violations and when people build dangerously wired illegal kitchens,” he says.

Pricing Out The Locals

Kaimuki resident and community advocate Christine Otto Zaa likes the DPP’s limits on building size, but believes it does not go far enough. “When you think of it, 70 percent of a 9,000-square-foot lot is 6,300 square feet. That’s still a monster house,” she says.

“Especially when you can fill the super-sized structure with unlimited bathrooms, laundry rooms and wet bars,” she adds.

Otto Zaa and the community group HI Good Neighbor have documented more than a 150 suspected monster houses. They have photographed many of the houses and logged information about them gleaned from city property tax records on spreadsheets.

“These monster house apartments are one of the main reasons local residents are being priced out of housing with more and more lots bought up by speculators,” she said.

Houses in her Kaimuki neighborhood now cost more than a million dollars. Even houses in Kapahulu where she grew up and in Kalihi are selling for more than a million dollars, she said. ”Every time a house goes up for sale in our neighborhood everyone cringes. We know the prices are going to get higher and higher.”

After the Planning Commission hearing on Ozawa’s measure and the DPP’s own bill, the commission will send its recommendations to the City Council.The City Council then will come up with its own bill for regulations. Sokugawa says there will be ample opportunity for the public to comment because the council must hold three readings and two committee hearings before it can take action. 

I wish the council would also include view plane restrictions in its final bill, but that’s hoping for a lot.

I also wish when home builders ignore current city laws and build monster houses that the city would cite the builders and force them to demolish their illegal structures.

Mayor Caldwell signed into law a bill Thursday that could do just that. The bill greatly increases fines for monster home violators and makes the fines non-negotiable and could even make the builders tear down all or part of their illegal dwelling.

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