About the Author
Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.
I have spent the last two weeks looking into the issue of monster houses and have concluded that despite new laws to curb the large-scale dwellings from proliferating on Oahu, there is very little people can do to prevent them from springing up in their neighborhoods.
Especially now during this turbocharged market with high demand for Oahu real estate and the possibility for builders to make big profits.
After talking with a developer of super large houses, it’s clear that the logic of building large homes to resell for profit is completely different from that of people wanting to retain the ambience of their neighborhood where the big spec houses dwarf smaller family residences.
Developer Christy Zeng Lei, with whom I spoke at length, is uncomfortable with the term monster houses. “That’s such a negative term. You can say I build large houses,” she said.
She offers no excuses for her building practices that have spanned more than a decade.
Since 2010, Lei, with her husband Yi Sun Chiu, sometimes by themselves or with investors, have built about 50 residences on smallish lots from Ewa Beach to Diamond Head. Most of their projects today are in Kaimuki and Palolo.
Builders of large houses like Christy Lei construct, for maximum profit, structures with city permits while the neighbors fight hard to retain the peaceful nature of their streets with the mango tree backyards and grassy lawns that were the norm in the last century.
One of the homes Lei built in 2016 before the laws tightened featured 17 bedrooms and 11 baths. She bought the house to tear down at 1746 9th Ave. in Palolo in 2015 for $715,000 and sold the new big structure in 2017 for $1.7 million.
The laws are stricter now, but they still don’t go far enough to prevent supersized homes or multiple large properties on small lots from spreading throughout older neighborhoods on Hawaii’s most populous island.
City ordinances created in the last three years now limit floor areas, the percentage of living space allowed on a residential lot, the number of bathrooms, wet bars and laundry rooms. The laws also call for deeper setbacks and limit impervious (non-rainwater draining) surfaces such as asphalt or concrete to 75% of a lot.
But enforcement by the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting is at best, sporadic, and at worst, nonexistent.
Even with the new laws, it is perfectly legal to put a lot of houses on a single property and cover most of the ground space with concrete.
The city admits it has no planned campaign to stake out or track repeat large-house violators. Instead it relies on calls or emails of complaint from neighbors.
Kaimuki resident Christine Otto Zaa, the co-founder of HI Good Neighbor, a community group dedicated to curbing the spread of monster houses in older family neighborhoods, is frustrated.
She says it has become so lucrative to build massive homes and multiple residences on single lots with many rooms to rent out that lots of people, including longtime Hawaii residents, are now eager to do it.
Hawaii real estate law makes it relatively easy with provisions such as the condominium property regime, which allows an owner to “CPR” a lot as small as 7,500 square feet on R-5 zoned property to build two large homes, each of which can be sold as a separate residence. R-5 zoning refers to a residential area where the minimum size of a lot to build a single house is 5,000 square feet.
With the addition of wet bars that can be turned into full kitchens after the building inspector leaves, the two homes can be transformed into four residential units. This allows some developers to quickly double their profit.
Lei says all homes she has built and put up for sale have been constructed according to city rules.
The Department of Planning and Permitting says during her more than a decade in the business, Lei has racked up a total of 35 notices of violation, but it says she has corrected the violations and paid all the required fines. The DPP has given her the go-ahead for all her current properties.
Like other big house developers, Lei and Chiu have purchased homes from the estates of deceased owners or from older homeowners who are no longer able to maintain their homes and their adult children are unwilling to take over the properties, or sometimes from other owners eager to sell for needed cash.
I got in touch with Lei after a group of neighbors on Wilhelmina Rise in Kaimuki launched a campaign against her and her husband when the couple, without a permit, demolished two houses on a beloved neighborhood property the couple had purchased three years ago at 3615 Sierra Drive.
Outraged, the neighbors threw what they called “A Not So Happy Hour.” On June 8, about 20 of them gathered on the street in front of the demolished houses to discuss with invited policymakers what could be done to stop Lei’s planned development on the property.
“We just want the law to be followed. If their intention is to do anything unlawful, they picked the wrong place. We are a tight neighborhood. All our eyes are on this place,” says Kelsie Aguilera, who organized the “not so happy hour.”
Honolulu City Council chairman Tommy Waters, who attended the gathering, promised residents he’d keep tabs on the Sierra Drive property and work to enact new legislation to further restrict large homes.
“It’s a tragedy that monster homes continue to spring up in our community and impact the quality of life for so many residents,” Waters wrote in an email.
Since then, Lei has paid a triple fine of $366 for demolishing the structures without a permit and is going ahead with a valid permit to build what will be four residences in three new structures on the Sierra Drive property. Under current law the DPP says she could even build one more new structure if she wanted to on the almost 20,000-square-foot property.
“We have a big family. We plan to live there. We will do landscaping to make it really nice. We hope to improve the neighborhood,” Lei says.
The DPP says the delay in getting Lei a building permit that she applied for three years ago was because the former inspector of the property was Kanani Padeken, who is among five current or former DPP employees facing federal corruption charges.
Padeken has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. A new inspector had to be assigned to the Sierra Drive property.
In our conversation, Lei said her projects are successful because they allow several generations of a family to live at one address where they can join forces to pay monthly mortgage payments that can be hefty. Also some of the units on a multi-residence property can be rented out to help a family shoulder its mortgage.
“I understand people are concerned about what we are doing. People don’t like change, but look at the housing market. There is very little inventory to meet the demand. Very few individual families can afford the mortgages today for a single home on a single lot,” she said.
Critics say her type of building shows complete disregard for the character of their neighborhoods and raises property taxes for residents living in smaller and older homes on the same streets.
Lei is proud of a five-bedroom, four-bath house she built on 18th Avenue in Kaimuki that was sold in February to a police officer and his family. The house was listed as “good for multi-generational living” and has a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor that could be rented out.
Lei’s sister, Ellie Zeng, the real estate agent for many of Lei’s units, says, “We have done nothing wrong. We build only what the city allows us to build. We do what the city wants because we live here. We are good people.”
Lei says other developers have constructed houses far more obtrusive than the structures she puts up.
That is true. I have seen true monstrosities built by other developers, like the three-story, 28-bedroom, 18-bath house at 1819 Houghtailing St. in Kalihi that’s listed on city documents as owned by contractor Shui Ping Chen and stunned neighbors in 2017.
Or the three-story, 15-bedroom, 12-bath house on 3227 Catherine St. in Kapahulu, offering 5722 square feet of living space crammed onto a 4,750-square-foot lot. City documents show that big house was built by owners Ruicai Lin and Ghang Ying Mei.
Lei dismissed some of the outrageously big houses that would not be allowed today as being developed by foreigners who are unlike her, a 25-year resident of Honolulu whose great-grandmother she said moved to Hawaii from China where she married a Hawaiian man. She said her grandmother was born and raised in Honolulu before moving to China when she married a native Chinese husband. Lei’s mother, Lei and her siblings were born in China.
She said they moved to Hawaii in 1996 from a subsistence farm in China’s Fukien Province when she was 20 years old. She learned English by working at Panda Express in the Ala Moana Shopping Center and bussing tables at Hee Hing Restaurant in Kapahulu.
She got into the house-building business in 2008 to make life better for her mother and father and sisters and brothers who were struggling to get by at the time, all of them with their children squeezed in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Kalihi near Pua Lane.
She said her father was depressed and talked about moving back to China. The rest of the family members were working two and three menial jobs but not advancing.
“I realized I had to do something. I had to be strong. My father couldn’t go back. We just wanted a better life. That’s why we came here. I realized I had to be strong for the sake of my family,” she said.
With money she had saved and income she made from selling Hawaiian jewelry on commission at Maui Divers she got a loan to build her first spec house in 2008.
“I made a profit of $200,000 and from then on, I kept going, developing more and more houses. I understood numbers and I found I was good at doing it,” she said.
Lei’s developments range from a two-story residence featuring 10 bedrooms and four bathrooms on 3,392 square feet of land at 1304 Konia St. in Kalihi to eight separate two-story houses on almost an acre of land at 22nd Avenue and Puu Panini Avenue at Diamond Head.
Lei’s husband, Chiu, who was the contractor for the 22nd Avenue and Puu Panini Avenue project, was cited by the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in April 2015 for six worker safety violations. He paid a fine of $8,960.
Chiu also paid a $3,780 fine in 2015 for OSHA worker safety violations at a property he developed with Lei at 1523 Palolo Ave.
In addition, Chiu was cited by OSHA for workplace safety violations on April 15, 2016, at a worksite at 1028 Kinau St. Lei is listed in building permit records as one of the owners of that Kinau Street property.
Lei is currently building four large detached homes on a 15,000-square-foot residential lot in Kaimuki at 928 9th Ave.
Molly Jenkins lives next door with her partner Nakana Wong in a house his grandparents built in 1935. Both Wong and his mother grew up in the small house on the property.
Jenkins said they were saddened to watch Lei’s contractor demolish the old house next door and take out all the fruit and flower trees.
”I am resigned to the fact we cannot control anything that’s happening on that property. We can only hope that more will be done in the future to stop the commodification of our neighborhoods,” she said in an interview.
On Feb. 9, Lei and Chiu were cited with a notice of violation for their contractor’s unpermitted grading on the property.
Jenkins said the building inspector has since told her the violation has been corrected.
Jenkins says of Lei’s and Chiu’s projects: “If you don’t care for the aina, it’s a great business model they are following.”
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