A movement to tackle the regulatory hurdles and community opposition that often block development is gaining momentum as Hawaii faces an affordable housing crisis.

State lawmakers are considering a bill calling for the establishment of a working group to come up with a plan to reduce zoning and regulatory barriers for building more homes and to increase community outreach about the efforts.

House Bill 1837, which also would require the group to submit annual reports to the Legislature, has advanced and is expected to go sometime this week to conference committee, where lawmakers will try to resolve their differences so it can be put to a final vote.

“We want to be more collaborative, do more reporting and figure out solution-based recommendations on how we can move forward by implementing some of these ideas to help housing development occur,” said Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who introduced the bill.

Rep Troy Hashimoto asks Mayor Kim a question during joint WAM/Finance meeting.
Rep. Troy Hashimoto proposed the “Yes In My Backyard” legislation as a way to seek solutions for the affordable housing crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

‘Yes In My Backyard Act’

If the bill becomes law, Hawaii would join states like Oregon and California that passed similar legislation. The U.S. Senate also introduced federal legislation last year that would track discriminatory land-use policies.

The debate in Hawaii has focused on the growing need for affordable housing as median home prices have surpassed $1 million.

While most agree on the need for development, project proposals often encounter opposition from local residents worried about property values, increased traffic congestion or negative environmental impacts. Such objections have prompted the nickname “Not In My Backyard,” or NIMBY.

Hawaii also has the highest level of land-use regulation in the nation, according to a recent report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

The new panel called for in HB 1837, which has been dubbed the “Yes In My Backyard Act,” would include representatives of state and county agencies such as the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and county zoning authorities.

In addition to drafting legislation, the group would be tasked with improving public outreach and raising awareness about state and county efforts to reduce barriers for affordable housing development.

That would address long-standing complaints from many communities that they have not been given advance notice or sufficient opportunities to weigh in on decisions about developments and housing projects.

Aerial photograph of Black Point and the surrounding Kahala area.
The “Yes In My Backyard” legislation aims to increase housing construction in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Reviewing Regulations

The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting opposed the measure, saying it already has taken steps to review land-use regulations and noting the city recently adopted rules to govern its multifamily rental housing program.

“Efforts are also underway to revamp the DPP website, making it more user-friendly and providing timely and transparent information on projects and initiatives under consideration,” DPP Director Dean Uchida said in written testimony.

Although state law provides an avenue for affordable housing projects to seek exemptions from county zoning ordinances, developers often encounter fierce neighborhood opposition.

The Hawaii Association of Realtors was one of the main backers of the bill as a way to increase the state’s housing stock.

“Everyone has a right to a home,” the association’s president Kelly Liberatore said in an interview.

She said community opposition was one of the biggest obstacles for developers.

“They can’t move forward until they get complete approval,” she said. “There are these groups that will sue or just oppose very loudly that they don’t want these developments to happen in their backyard.”

Community Concerns

In 2020, a neighborhood group in Maili in West Oahu filed a lawsuit to stop construction of a 52-unit affordable rental project called Hale Makana O Maili.

The group cited concerns the complex was too big and would diminish property values in the area.

“The lawsuit nearly torpedoed our project,” said Kali Watson, head of the nonprofit Hawaiian Community Development Board.

The 1st Circuit Court ruled in favor of the project, which was eventually completed with all units filled.

Watson said filing for an affordable housing exemption is an onerous task since the project must be reviewed by multiple government entities, including neighborhood boards that are advisory in nature but can have heavy influence on city council decisions.

In another example, the owners of the Manoa Chinese Cemetery are facing opposition from neighborhood residents to their proposal to build an affordable housing project for older adults.

Demonstrators opposing Manoa Banyan Court project gather near University Avenue and East Manoa Road.
A proposal to build an affordable housing complex in Manoa met community opposition. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

A wave of local protests also prompted a developer to withdraw its application to build a 73-unit affordable housing complex in the affluent neighborhood of Kailua the day before it was scheduled for a vote by the Honolulu City Council.

The chair of of the Kailua Neighborhood Board, Bill Hicks, said the proposed complex “was the wrong project for the wrong place,” although he insisted that residents are supportive of affordable housing in general.

“My fear is that this (bill) gets painted as anybody who is opposed to affordable housing is doing so for selfish, ‘not in my backyard’ reasons,” he said in an interview. “That is a generalization that I think is unfair and certainly one that does not apply to the Kailua situation.”

“In Kailua I would say yes in my backyard,” he added. “Put affordable housing in my backyard as long as it’s an area that’s not zoned as residential.”

Opposition from local residents prompted a developer to withdraw a proposal for an affordable housing project in Kailua last year. Ahe Group

Laura Foote, executive director for the national organization YIMBY Action, said that community opposition often dominated by homeowners can have a domino effect.

“They have concerns and housing doesn’t get approved, especially affordable housing,” she said.

She said the “ability to stall projects means that you get this systemic effect where affordable housing developers are shy to propose affordable housing in wealthier, high opportunity neighborhoods.”

Several other measures aimed at expediting development, including one that would have exempted affordable housing projects from the environmental impact statement rule, died in the Legislature.

Hashimoto expressed hope both legislative chambers would overcome their differences and pass HB 1837.

“The sentiment is there,” he said. “I think the Legislature believes that we need to continue having conversations in one place with the counties, the state and even the federal government on what type of solution we need to take a look at and continue to streamline from a policy perspective to help spur affordable housing.”

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