Struggling To Get By project badgeFor a senior seeking an inexpensive place to live, it might seem ideal: an affordable rental in the back of the verdant Manoa Valley adjacent to a historic cemetery.

But many Manoa residents have a different view of the proposed Manoa Banyan Court project.

They say the development, which envisions 288 affordable rental units spread among four three-story apartment buildings with 185 parking spaces, will increase the chance of flooding, not just in the rainy valley, but also downstream in Makiki and Waikiki.

The project will also mean the loss of a preserved forest on land zoned for preservation, critics say, something rare in residential areas. Finally, there’s the issue of more traffic in a valley accessible by only two roads.

Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, said the project will help fund the Manoa Chinese Cemetery.
Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, said the Manoa Banyan Court  project will help fund the Manoa Chinese Cemetery while providing affordable rentals for kupuna. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

“The proposed scope/scale is TOO BIG for our low-density residential neighborhood,” say organizers of an online petition seeking to block the project. “If we fail to stop it, this high-density development may forever alter the quiet peaceful low-density residential character of Manoa Valley.”

The opposition might be chalked up to classic neighborhood opposition, but it speaks to a broader issue. Many agree Hawaii needs more housing, especially affordable housing. A 2019 study by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, for instance, determined that between 2020 and 2030, Oahu alone would need as many as 21,000 additional housing units.

But almost every proposed development, idea or policy to increase housing draws concerns from someone, in some cases big concerns.

Farm advocates oppose using agricultural land for housing. Trade unions voice fears that building materials designed to lower construction costs will hurt their workers by driving down wages. Environmentalists worry that excessive development will hurt a fragile island ecosystem. And existing homeowners have an economic interest in maintaining a scarcity of housing that has led the median single-family home price on Oahu to top $1.2 million.

What’s more, as the Manoa Banyan Court debate shows, the structure of such conversations often tilts toward opponents, says Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.

Moore said opponents tend to face direct negative side effects because of development, while many benefits, aside from money for a developer, are amorphous, addressing a general need for more housing, for instance, or helping some undefined group of future homeowners or renters. The result: lots of highly mobilized opponents and few supporters.

“It’s a very common concept in politics,” Moore said. “Any time you have a situation like that in politics, it means it’s tough to get something through.”

Capitol building.
Attempts to weaken land-use protections in Hawaii often face opposition, even when the changes are proposed in the name of housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In many cases, opposition focuses not on a specific project like Banyan Court, but on efforts to weaken environmental laws in the name of addressing Hawaii’s housing crisis.

In Hawaii, protecting the environment is of paramount importance. The Hawaii Constitution, for example, requires state and county governments to “conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources, including land, water, air, minerals and energy sources” and to “promote the development and utilization of these resources in a manner consistent with their conservation.”

Hawaii statutes and case law reflect this overarching principle. And attempts to skirt or change these laws tend to prompt an outcry from advocacy organizations and the public — even when the stated reason for the changes is to produce more housing.

That’s what happened in 2019 when House lawmakers introduced a bill that would have significantly stripped power from the state Land Use Commission in the name of solving Hawaii’s housing crisis. Hawaii is unique among the 50 states in that it has two levels of zoning: state-level zoning, technically called classification, administered by the Hawaii Land Use Commission and county-level zoning administered by city or county governments, including planning departments and city or county councils.

The proposed bill essentially would have forced the Land Use Commission to adopt state-level zoning changes to comport with any such changes made by the counties. The stated purpose was to address what bill sponsors called the main reason for Hawaii’s housing crisis: “Hawaii’s comprehensive land use system and policies, coupled with an overlapping county entitlement process.”

The bill had support from parties like the Building Industry Association of Hawaii. But numerous critics blasted it. The long-time environmental organization Life of the Land, for instance, questioned the measure’s assertion, stated with no supporting data, that Hawaii’s state and county land-use policies were the “dominant reasons for the severe housing shortage.” Hawaii’s League of Women Voters went further. It questioned stripping the Land Use Commission’s power to basically do its job, which also would have closed an avenue for public participation.

Lawmakers eventually amended the bill, then let it die.

Ann Shaver, a former member of the league’s legislative committee who testified against the bill, said gutting the commission was the wrong way to address Hawaii’s housing issues.

“It’s an issue that’s still alive,” she said. “But this is not the way to resolve it.”

Not all criticism involves radically changing land use laws. What might seem to some like a practical idea to reduce construction costs, for instance, can ruffle powerful interests.

Cheaper Construction Costs Raise Concerns From Union

Consider Pacific Resource Partnership, the lobbying arm of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, Hawaii’s largest construction union, and more than 200 contractors.

A supporter of the Honolulu rail project, PRP has spent millions of dollars to dash the hopes of politicians who have questioned rail, including former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who ran for Honolulu mayor on an anti-rail platform, and former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who questioned extending rail funding as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in 2017. PRP spent more than $3 million to attack Cayetano in the 2012 mayoral election that Kirk Caldwell, a rail proponent, won. In 2018, PRP spent $1 million through a related entity to help Josh Green defeat Tokuda in the election for lieutenant governor.

Given PRP’s influence, it’s more than trivial when the organization voices concerns. That happened recently when the organization commented on a building material called structural insulated panels, which advocates say could help lower construction costs.

The problem for PRP was not that using the panels might fail to reduce building costs but that it might succeed.

As PRP’s executive director, Kyle Chock, explained, lower building costs could depress wages for construction workers. The construction industry has been a steady source of middle class jobs in Hawaii, especially during the pandemic, and Chock said the union did not want to risk such jobs fleeing.

“The inflation rate has hit the highest rate in nearly 40 years and local wages weren’t keeping up even prior to that,” Chock told Civil Beat in a written statement in February, when discussing the prefabricated building panels.

Chock declined to comment for this article.

For years developments like Olomana Heights have offered luxury homes on land zoned for agriculture, but lawmakers have sought to stop the practice, saying the so-called “gentleman estates” are really fake farms. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2021

This isn’t to say developers never win. For example, for years home builders exploited a loophole in state and county land-use laws to turn farm land into residential communities by calling the houses “farm dwellings,” even if the owners weren’t doing much farming beyond planting a fruit tree.

In 2021, lawmakers finally closed the loophole by among other things changing the definition of a farm dwelling from a house simply built on land zoned for farming to a house that’s on an actual farm.

In the meantime, belying criticism that the Land Use Commission merely blocks development, the commission has blessed the idea of turning some of Oahu’s best farm land into housing. In 2012, for instance, the commission voted to reclassify about 1,500 acres of prime ag land in Ewa to make way for a 12,000-home subdivision called Hoopili. That came after a similar vote to approve developing about 760 acres of prime farm land in central Oahu into a subdivision called Koa Ridge.

Despite Oahu’s need for housing, Kioni Dudley, a retired university professor who opposed Hoopili, said the commission never should have approved the project.

“It was the golden triangle,” he said. “It was the very best of the lands for growing sugar, which means it was the highest producing. It is also sunny almost every single day of the year.”

Homeowners And County Tax Coffers Benefit From Escalating Prices

There’s one more group with an interest in keeping housing supply low: existing homeowners. It’s not just an issue in Hawaii, says Miriam Axel-Lute, editor-in-chief of Shelterforce, an online magazine that takes deep dives into housing issues.

“The value of one’s home is frequently touted as not only an asset, but the asset, the retirement fund, the nest egg, the best way to build assets and achieve economic stability,” she wrote in a recent article. “And it’s not only the value of the home, but the expected appreciation of that home.”

Despite significant data showing that affordable housing developments do not decrease property values of nearby homes, residents living near proposed projects often oppose them out of misplaced fear, she said in an interview. The opposition becomes heightened because people often have much, if not all, of their wealth invested in their homes.

And it’s not just homeowners who benefit, Axel-Lute says: City governments that rely on property taxes benefit from escalating home prices, and developers do, too.

It’s an unhealthy situation, Axel-Lute said, when the financial security of large numbers of people is tied to high home prices that are ultimately bad for society.

The result: “That has set up this dynamic where people resist change in their neighborhood,” she said.

A worker at Aloun Farms holds up freshly picked watermelons near construction of the HART rail project in Kapolei on August 28, 2014. This land is the future site of the Hoopili housing development.
Former agriculture land once used by Aloun Farms to grow produce like watermelons, shown here in 2014, was reclassified to make way for 15,000 homes. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

A big question is how to change the dynamic. Axel-Lute agrees with Moore that this can be hard when the people who might rent or buy affordable properties aren’t present at public meetings discussing the projects.

“People who don’t have housing don’t really have a voice,” she said.

That’s where elected officials should step in, says Neil Abercrombie, a former Hawaii governor and U.S. representative who lives in Manoa and wants the Manoa Banyan Court project to happen.

Kupuna who would benefit from affordable housing in Manoa are “supposed to be represented by elected officials who have the guts to do the right thing,” Abercrombie said.

In the meantime, an organization has formed to advocate for young people. Housing Hawaii’s Future is seeking to be a “counter-balancing force that’s representing the people who aren’t necessarily represented in the conversations about housing,” said Sterling Higa, the organization’s co-founder and executive director.

That includes young people trying to start careers and families in Hawaii, said Higa. The hope is to have honest dialogue that weighs the trade-offs associated with housing development with an understanding that the current situation is driving young people away.

“True sustainability,” Higa said, “looks like our children and grandchildren being able to afford to live here.”

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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