The carpenter’s union says that more modular housing is not a “silver bullet.”

From September to February, like clockwork, Jim McCully needs help to harvest coffee on Big Island’s southern coast.

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Housing farm laborers is a major challenge for farmers and ranchers like McCully, in addition to the already difficult prospect of finding workers.

“Generally you just find the rental house in the area and you pack as many into the house as they can tolerate,” McCully said in an interview. “But that’s an expensive process that’s ripe with risk.”

But the coffee and orchid farmer has a solution: Modular and prefabricated housing on wheels, to transport between his three parcels of land during and after harvest season.

McCully’s idea is not new, but the sense of possibility is.

These 20 “micro shelters” built in Kona were the start of a bigger plan for affordable housing on Big Island by HPM. (Courtesy: HPM)

The Hawaii County Council recently smoothed over the building codes for factory-built housing in a county that forecasts a need for up to 13,500 new houses by the end of the decade.

It’s also expanding its planning and permitting team.

The county is now currently reviewing 81 building permits for prefabricated dwellings, with a list of 18 pre-approved models that it already has on its books.

Now, according to a county spokesperson, if a house design is already approved, site plans are approved within six days.

Zoning, land use, regulations and permitting have created a regulatory quagmire for farmers wanting to build housing on agricultural land statewide.

And while farmworker housing is a statewide issue, the Big Island, which in 2020 had 69% of the state’s agricultural production, has had some of the most stringent land use regulations in the country.

So a fleet of affordable and potentially mobile dwellings would alleviate some of the pain faced by farmers like McCully, whose land holdings are often fragmented and sometimes unconnected to the grid.

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Despite the global popularity of prefabricated housing, it barely had a footprint in the state until local building supply outfit Hawaii Planing Mill pre-built housing for those displaced by the 2018 Kilauea eruptions which destroyed 700 homes in Puna.

HPM worked with local community partners and built 20 emergency tiny house units – which it calls “micro shelters” – to house some of those displaced by the eruption.

HPM Director of Risk Management Darryl Oliveira said the idea evolved into working longer term with Hawaii County to more affordable housing on Big Island.

“What can a household afford … if your household income is less than $40,000? There’s not much out there,” Oliveira said in an interview. “If we’re able to produce a product at a price point that puts it within reach, we can have an impact on the housing needs for our communities.”

Hawaii County Building in Hilo, Hawaii.  Photo: Tim Wright
Hawaii County Building in Hilo, Hawaii. (Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2020)

HPM has heard McCully’s idea for prefabricated housing on wheels and is eager to entertain the prospect, according to Oliveira.

But before that happens, HPM aims to construct a larger, dedicated facility to help prefabricate the housing, to be transported and constructed on site.

HPM and fellow building supplier Honsador Lumber, of Oahu, have remained in steady conversation with the county to make that happen.

“We are not looking at solutions that are exclusive to us, it’s solutions that are good for the community and we would welcome others to play,” Oliveira said.

HPM is confident its modular, prefabricated housing units will be “well below” Big Island’s $200 to $450 per-square-foot building costs, though Oliveira was unable to share those costs until the county has begun signing off on its designs and processes.

Thinking Big, Going Small

Enthusiasm for McCully’s idea, and HPM’s plan isn’t universal.

Pacific Resource Partnership — the partnership between the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and more than 200 other contractors — is concerned that factory built housing has a competitive advantage over traditional “stick built” housing controlled by building codes.

PRP Government Relations Manager Christopher Delaunay says the idea that factory construction is a “silver bullet” for Hawaii’s housing market is misplaced, given the costs associated with land, shipping, transportation and following government regulations.

While Delaunay says PRP embraces new technologies to find efficiency, it should not come at the potential cost of jobs and good wages.

“If we are truly looking for impactful solutions to our housing crisis, our government rules and regulations should provide solutions that benefit all,” Delaunay said in a statement.

An example of prefabricated housing that could alleviate the shortage of agricultural worker housing. (Courtesy: HPM)

Rancher Michelle Galimba, who’s also a member of the Hawaii County Council, has almost finished building a $250,000 two-bedroom home for one of her ranch families, on her family’s Kuahiwi Ranch near Naalehu.

Galimba says she understands where the carpenter’s union is coming from, though the reality is that the housing situation on Big Island is “critical,” so all options need to be explored.

“A regular person that is building a house for themselves is not necessarily going to use a union because they can’t afford $100 an hour,” Galimba said in an interview.

Galimba says that if prefabricated housing were an option a few years ago, she may have considered it instead.

Location, Location, Location

Hawaii’s coffee and fruit industries need farmworkers, who require housing. (Courtesy: Christopher Prentiss Michael/2010)

Hawaii County’s move represents a small shift in the broader housing conversation, as farmers still contend with a confluence of regulations intended to preserve and incentivize agricultural productivity.

The things that sweeten the deal for agricultural land — such as tax breaks — are too often co-opted by non-farmers, fueling fears that regulatory changes could inadvertently stoke the island’s short-term housing and holiday rental issue.

Those fears have not changed much since two pieces of draft legislation relating to tiny houses and farm workers were killed in the Capitol more than five years ago, according to former Rep. Cindy Evans.

The transience of state and county employees and politicians means farmers need to be persistent and lobby for holistic solutions to these issues, says Evans, now a councilor for Kohala and Waimea.

One such solution, according to Evans, could be reconsidering plantation camp models — something developer Peter Savio is pursuing on Oahu to deal with zoning rules — to help ensure a decent quality of life for farm laborers.

“It’s the whole package,” Evans said in an interview. “It’s not just the roof over your head,” Evans said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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