Denby Fawcett: Honolulu Needs A Zero Tolerance Policy For Illegal Monster Houses - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Many residents want the City Council to pass Bill 44, which would give officials stronger tools to punish homebuilders who submit false plans to get permits.

City Council members are being too timid about enacting legislation that would make a serious dent in the proliferation of monster homes in Honolulu. It’s time to tear down the buildings or the specific parts that were built in defiance of the city’s building code.

The Department of Planning and Permitting already has the authority to do that but has not used it.

Monster homes are huge, multi-tenant residences, squeezed into relatively small lots in residential neighborhoods, blocking views, hogging the street parking and denuding once leafy lots.

Despite city laws enacted in 2019 and 2020 and many existing rules, the ugly edifices keep springing up in neighborhoods that once only held single family homes.

Home builders keep finding ways to get around the law or hoping their illegal construction will escape the notice of building inspectors.

The council’s latest effort to make homebuilders think twice before building another pretend home that is really a mini apartment complex is Bill 44. Itʻs not specifically an anti-monster house measure, but it has turned into one.

Residents in neighborhoods plagued by monster houses are submitting testimony and sending letters to the editor to spur council members to get tough in Bill 44 — to make it their best effort to stop what has proved to be largely unstoppable.

The goal is to give the Department of Planning and Permitting stronger tools to punish homebuilders who submit false plans to get permits to build new monster homes or to do home remodeling projects that exceed whatʻs allowed by the building code.

Bill 44 as currently written includes a fine not to exceed $2,000, up to a year in prison and up to 80 hours of community service for anyone who intentionally provides false information to a city official.

But in committee discussion on July 25, some council members wanted include a demolition clause in Bill 44 to warn builders if they tell lies to get their permits then build something much bigger, their projects might have to be torn down.

City council members Esther Kia’aina Radiant Cordero Matt Weyer Val Aquino Okimoto Angie Tulba citizen testimony
Concern about monster homes is a major topic for the Honolulu City Council. Council member Esther Kiaaina, left, agrees that there should be an option to tear down illegal monster homes in egregious cases. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, co-author of Bill 44, said he is eager to see that clause written into a future draft of the measure.

“We need to use every tool we can to stop these colossal out-of-place structures from popping up in our residential neighborhoods,” he wrote to Civil Beat in an email on Saturday.

“The fines are considered by violators part of doing business. If caught, and if they’re assessed fines, they just pay them and move on to their next out-of-compliance building,” he said.

Exactly a year ago, I wrote a column urging the city to tear down the monster houses of builders who continued to violate Honoluluʻs building code. 

At the July 25 committee meeting, council member Esther Kiaaina spoke about a large-scale home in her district on Lilipuna Road, which her constituents say was constructed without a building permit and special management area review.

“And in an egregious circumstance like that, they need to tear the house down,”  she said.

In a phone call Sunday, Kiaaina said, “The fines today are miniscule. Tearing down a home should be one of the tools readily available to DPP to remedy a wrong.”

As mentioned before, the city already has the power to do that, but Dos Santos-Tam says a new ordinance would for the first time make explicit in city statute the will of the council to demolish structures when prior citations fail.

The only time I have personally seen a Honolulu county official order an illegal structure to be torn down was in 1989 when John Whalen, then director of the cityʻs Land Utilization Department ordered Pleasant Travel Service Inc., the owner of a luxury home at 4949 Kahala Ave., to tear down the homeʻs high pitched roof.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1989 Monster Houses torn down Denby Fawcett column
A 1989 article about an instance when city officials ordered part of a building torn down because of violations. (Honolulu Star-Bulletin/

The builder of the home had ignored the cityʻs many warnings and failed to use the time he was given to correct the violation of both a roof and a fence that were too high. When the owner asked for an after-the-fact variance, Whalen denied it.

On the day of the demolition, Whalen invited all the local TV news stations to come and film it to make sure other home builders got the message.

There is a  yearning today for such a direct, no-nonsense approach to upholding the law.

Yet, Dos Santos-Tam says the council will move cautiously before adding a demolition amendment to Bill 44.

Bill 44 goes before the full council on Aug. 9, then will return to the Committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs on Aug. 22 when Dos Santos-Tam hopes to make the amendments.

Considerations about the bill going forward will include finding out if it duplicates what is already in state law and if it will create unintended consequences.

“And, most importantly: will it actually work?” Dos Santos-Tam says.

Kiaaina says additional sanctions such as a demolition clause may require a separate bill.

The full council will hold a final vote on Sept. 6.

“There is a process, but we can’t let the fear of the process stop us from trying our best. We can’t keep having the attitude of ʻno can,’ we must keep pushing forward,” says Dos Santos-Tam.

The time is over for pussyfooting. Please push forward boldly.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Given the 50+ year suffering of the homeless, that's very elitist.

prohuman · 1 month ago

100% is favor of this. Scofflaws are gonna scoff at miniscule slap-on-the-wrist penalties. Need to hit them in the wallet to make them obey the laws.

CBsupporter · 1 month ago

As long as we are looking at history, perhaps we should be looking at the origins of the Board of Water Supply? Why is it separated from city hall? Maybe the example of the BWS needs to be replicated in some other departments like DPP?

Thrasybulus_of_Athens · 1 month ago

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