On a recent Thursday afternoon, Sen. Stanley Chang, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, presided over a familiar scene. On the committee’s hearing agenda: a bill that would establish Chang’s ambitious plan to develop affordable housing in Hawaii.

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Known as “Aloha Homes” and based roughly on Singapore’s housing model, Chang’s program seeks to develop low-cost homes on state- and county-owned land in urban redevelopment sites to be sold by the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to qualified residents.

“Although Hawaii has the tenth highest median wage nationally, living expenses are two-thirds higher than the rest of the nation, with the cost of housing being a major contributing factor,” the bill says. The median price of a home on Oahu is now more than $1 million, and a condo nearly $500,000, the measure notes.

The result: “A household needs to earn at least $200,000 annually to afford to buy a median-priced home on Oahu in 2021, making homeownership out of reach for many of Hawaii’s residents, especially first-time buyers.”

Sen. Stanley Chang, chair of the Senate Housing Committee, admits many of his ideas are not in the mainstream of public opinion in Hawaii. Screenshot

Although Chang had rounded up nearly a dozen co-sponsors for the bill, there was no shortage of criticism. Linda Schatz, a developer of workforce housing and wife of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, opposed the plan in written testimony.

Michaels Development, another builder of affordable housing, also criticized the bill.

“The State would be better served by creating a process to identify key lands and offer them through an auction process with entitlements and financing awards in place,” Michaels wrote.

Perhaps most worrisome was the opposing testimony of Denise Iseri-Matsubara, executive director of the HHFDC, which would be in charge of administering the program.

In the end, the opposition wasn’t enough. Chang’s committee passed the measure, and so did the Senate Government Operations Committee, which was hearing the bill in a joint meeting.

Whether Chang’s Aloha Homes idea is viable enough to make it past the Senate and the additional hurdle of the House of Representatives is far from settled. But as some see it, that’s not the point. Kailua-based economist Paul Brewbaker calls Chang a public policy provocateur “in a town that needs to be systematically provoked.”

Asked what’s wrong with Chang continually provoking conversations, Brewbaker quotes a popular local aphorism: “The nail that sticks up gets the hammer.”

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For his part, Chang said he doesn’t care if people roll their eyes behind his back.

“I know it happens, 100% that it happens today, so I’m not extremely worried about it,” Chang says. “But, you know, I guess what I would say in response is, to all the stakeholders that we work with, ‘So what is your plan to end the housing shortage?’”

“I’m all ears,” he adds.

Bill Would Allow 10 Homes Per Lot

As the Legislature’s most visible housing advocate, this legislative session Change has sponsored more than three dozen bills dealing with housing. Some are modest, like bills calling on the State Auditor to conduct studies on costs of affordable housing and the state’s ohana zoning and accessory dwelling unit program.

Others are more ambitious. One would require the state Department of Education to develop affordable housing for teachers and would eliminate county land-use barriers to such projects.

Other measures would dramatically change the way counties regulate land use in Hawaii. One bill, for instance, would limit the ability of counties to prohibit housing projects based on the size of the lot the development would be built on. It also increases something called the floor-area ratio, which is another tool the counties use to control the size of houses that can be built on a lot.

Another bill would go further with the idea of liberalizing the way people can use their property. It would allow up to 10 units to be built on “any lot where a residential dwelling unit is permitted.”

The bill would limit the height of the dwellings to 26 feet and require a developer to set aside a certain number of units to be sold at below market rates, as required by county zoning. But the upshot would potentially be far more densely populated neighborhoods.

Asked about the bill, Chang said the overarching goal is to prompt discussion. In other places the not-in-my-back-yard NIMBY movement is being challenged by YIMBYs who say, “Yes-in-my-backyard,” he said.

“Not just this bill, but all of these bills are designed to move a conversation and have a discussion, which is what the deliberative process is for,” he said. “I don’t expect that necessarily 10 is a magical number.”

Still, Chang pointed to places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, which allows three units on every single-family lot. Chang denied he was advocating for the development of multi-family “monster homes” that many residents abhor.

“I understand why people don’t like monster houses,” he said. “But you know, my question for them is, ‘Where should the housing go?’”

If Hawaii relies on private landowners to fill the housing shortage, the state might need to pack more people into neighborhoods, says Sen. Stanley Chang. But so-called monster houses on relatively small lots, such as this one in Kapahulu, has raised the ire of neighbors. Courtesy: Christine Otto Zaa

While the idea of bigger, more densely populated residential neighborhoods might offend many residents, developers certainly don’t seem opposed, at least in general terms.

David Arakawa, executive director of the Land Use Research Foundation, a trade association for developers, said he had not drafted testimony related to Chang’s housing bills. But he said that the foundation favors the counties letting people build on their property, within limits.

“Stanley is saying, rightly so, as long as people can live there, and there’s no health and safety problem, let them do it,” Arakawa said.

Chang: I Won’t Stand Idly By

More broadly, Chang says, he’s trying to offer an alternative to his “top-down” approach, where government builds the housing.

“I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that the top-down, public sector-led approach is my favorite approach,” he said. “But there are many people who don’t agree, and that’s fine. So here’s an alternative model, a more private-sector based approach. I’m willing to have that conversation.”

The one thing Chang is not willing to do is nothing. Hawaii’s cost of living continues to drive residents away, which he says is a major problem with potentially profound implications.

Chang admits many of his ideas “do not represent the mainstream of public opinion in Hawaii.” But he also says the community needs to stretch the range of possibilities it will accept.

“I was not elected to stand by idly as Hawaii’s population, which has now been decreasing for five straight years, continues to decline. Fifty years in the future,” he said, “the Hawaii community will no longer exist. I was not elected to stand idly by while that happens.”

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