In a vacuum, the project might have been a reasonable response to Oahu’s housing needs: a nine-bedroom, seven-bath house with four separate entrances and spaces for several cars.

What’s more, according to Patrick Smith, president of the Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board which oversees the Pacific Heights area where the project was to be located, the house was being built to house workers. That would make it exactly the sort of workforce housing the island needs.

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The problem is the house was going to be in a quiet residential neighborhood of historic homes. And even if the structure technically met the density criteria allowed by Honolulu’s land-use ordinance, its apparent intended use – as essentially an apartment building or dormitory – simply wouldn’t be allowed in a place zoned for single-family homes.

“We don’t want our neighborhood having apartment buildings,” Smith said. Under pressure from neighbors, the city eventually revoked the project’s building permit, Smith said.

Like folks in Pacific Heights, residents and policymakers across Oahu have rejected huge multi-room houses, known as “monster homes,” even as builders clamor to construct them amidst an enormous demand for housing.

But the widespread rejection of monster homes speaks to an issue beyond neighborhood aesthetics. While many people agree that allowing more housing density can help alleviate Oahu’s housing shortage, the question is how to increase density, and where?

920 19th Avenue houses developed by Christy Zeng Lei.
So-called monster homes, such as this one at 920 19th Ave., have drawn sharp criticism from neighbors. And a recent bill proposed to allow more density in residential neighborhoods went nowhere. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some ideas have proven to be non-starters. For example, state Sen. Stanley Chang this session proposed a bill that would allow up to 10 housing units to be built on any parcel that allowed a residential dwelling.

It would essentially allow monster houses on steroids. When asked about the bill previously, Chang said he understood people don’t like monster homes. But his question for them was, what are the alternatives? In the end, the bill went nowhere, dying without a single hearing.

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Deja Ostrowski, a housing advocate who has taught a course on housing law at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, said the answer is not simply density for the sake of density.

“Monster houses are not the kind of mixed-use walkable density we want or need to address our housing crisis,” she said. “We cannot just equate any density as good for our communities.”

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam is a former building industry lobbyist who now heads HI Good Neighbor, a group that opposes monster homes.

He said changes to Honolulu’s land-use ordinance governing apartments could help steer density into appropriate places. These zoning laws have made it so hard to build apartments, he says, that people are going into neighborhoods where gray areas in the zoning code allow them to build large dwellings that can be converted into apartments.

“You’re basically building an apartment building without following apartment zoning rules,” he said.

Solutions Can Be Slow To Take Effect

Some efforts have been slow to get traction, even when they involved changing the law precisely to allow more dense housing in places where people think that makes sense.

A case in point is a Honolulu law known as Bill 7. Colloquially called “The Marshall Hung Bill,” after the developer who promoted it, the measure is designed to help people redevelop small homes and under-used, walk-up apartment buildings into affordable rentals with far more units than previously allowed. To that end, the measure expands density allowances, removes things like minimum parking requirements and, at least in theory, allows a faster permit approval process.

Testifying in favor of another City Council bill to provide incentives for Bill 7 projects in April 2021, Hung spoke of the high demand for affordable apartments and the potentially huge supply.

“The small apartment product is in great need for Honolulu’s neighborhoods,” he wrote. “They offer a low cost of living for a mixed age group and a mixed household type group to live together.”

As for supply? “Fate has it,” he wrote, “that Honolulu has 7,000 land parcels governed by Bill 7.”

So how many projects have been built since Bill 7 was adopted in 2019? The short answer is none.

According to a November 2021 report submitted to the Honolulu City Council by the Department of Planning and Permitting, just two of 16 Bill 7 projects proposed – or 54 units out of 445  — had gotten the raft of approvals needed to move forward.

Dean Uchida, the department’s director, explained that, rather than helping, certain aspects of the bill created problems for developers.

“We have been working with proponents of Bill 7 on how the bill should be interpreted; however, we have not reached agreement at this time,” Uchida wrote. He was not available to be interviewed for this article.

Don Huang, Collaborative7
Don Huang, principal of Collaborative7, is the first builder to take advantage of a relatively new Honolulu ordinance that proponents say can alleviate the city’s housing shortage. Here he shows a rendering of a project he is developing on Pensacola Street. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

One person who has successfully made it through the Bill 7 approval gauntlet is Don Huang, an architect and developer who is the principal of Collaborative7. His 29-unit project, which he is developing with his partner, Tokyo-based ADW Hawaii LLC, is located at the corner of Pensacola and Lunalilo streets near the U.S. Post Office.

Called PenseMetro, the project has a footprint “no bigger than a tennis court,” Huang said, and includes amenities often not part of low-cost apartments, like elevators and nine-foot ceilings. He also plans to have cars from Servco’s Hui short-term rental fleet available at the building for residents who don’t have cars.

The project has laid a foundation, he said, and is preparing to begin construction. A second project, located near the Marco Polo apartments, is awaiting permitting approval, he said.

Huang said he was able to get the planning department’s approvals without too much delay by being as proactive as possible. That meant reaching out to the city fire department and transportation department early on, then going to the DPP director with a complete package of plans carefully drafted to comply with Bill 7.

‘The design team has to be cognizant of all the issues, do their studies, and provide all the solutions according to Bill 7, and not do it piecemeal,” he said.

He also recommended being proactive in understanding how DPP views Bill 7. “You have to sit down early on to make sure you understand the interpretation,” he said.

Not far from PenseMetro, Honolulu developer R.J. Martin showed off what he says is another solution. He calls his project, Surfbreak, a “co-living space.” But what Martin has created is effectively an upscale dorm for grown-ups, with small bedrooms, a shared kitchen, dining room, living room and bathrooms.

Surfbreak has the look and feel of a modern apartment. Occupying the penthouse of Ala Moana’s Century Center, a lone high-rise at the edge of Waikiki and Moiliili, Surfbreak has sweeping views of the ocean, the Ala Wai Canal and Diamond Head. But, despite the luxe feel, Martin points out that having a shared kitchen and relatively few bathrooms kept development costs low.

Martin says he’s looking for people who want to be part of a community, not simply those looking to live in a long-term hotel. His target demographic is well-off digital nomads looking for furnished lodging, so Surfbreak doesn’t scrimp on amenities, especially high-speed internet. And with only 12 to 16 units available to rent, Martin has the luxury of being choosy who he rents to.

RJ Martin, Surfbreak
Honolulu developer R.J. Martin says co-living spaces such as one he has created near Ala Moana fill a niche for people needing housing, but he said zoning laws make such projects difficult. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

Still, Martin says the adult dorm model could serve numerous markets. Veterans could benefit from a community of other veterans, he says. Working single parents could benefit from such a community, too, he says, sharing child care costs and cooking duties.

“There’s such a need for this model that doesn’t have all the amenities,” he said. “There’s no limit to the demographics that this could really effective for.”

The problem is that under Honolulu’s current land-use ordinance, there are few places that allow dormitory housing. The apartment zone doesn’t allow it, he says. So he was lucky to find a place zoned for business and mixed use where he can operate.

Martin says a preference for single-family dwellings, and not communal spaces, is “ingrained into the DNA of our housing codes, even though that’s not how everybody wants to live.”

More broadly, he says, Hawaii’s land-use policies in general have combined to keep supply low and prices high.

“It’s our restrictions that have created the housing crisis,” he said. “It’s nothing else.”

Patrick Smith, the president of the Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board agrees needless regulation isn’t the answer. But he said government officials need to heed what residents want. In some places greater density could make sense. But the city needs a roadmap, which he said the island’s neighborhood boards are in a position to help create.

“You really need to have a solid, holistic plan guiding the city,” he said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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