Neal Milner: Let's Put On An Emergency Housing Show! - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

It’s time to toss the distractions, get on our feet and build us some houses. 

Josh Green’s emergency housing plan “Build Beyond Barriers” reminds me of a Mickey Rooney movie.

In Rooney’s 1939 movie “Babes in Arms” with Judy Garland, the town has housing problems threatening to destroy it.

“I think our time has come,” Rooney says, inspiring his friends to get off their duffs and stop this from happening. “Let’s put on a show!”

And indeed, they do. From scratch. Through desperation and with perspiration, they worked together and did the impossible. Nothing stopped them. They saved the day.

I can picture Josh Green saying, “Let’s put on a show,” and I mean this in a good way. Lord, we sure can use this kind of optimism and can-do spirit. 

Of course, we don’t live in a Mickey Rooney world. Yet the main idea behind Gov. Green’s emergency housing plan’s strategy is to bring in more Mickey Rooney and less Mickey Mouse-like trivialities that gum up the works.

That’s why his plan is called “Build Beyond Barriers.” In the governor’s eyes, disagreement over processes is a huge barrier. “I don’t think war over process is going to help anybody,” Green recently said.

In other words, it’s our time. Let’s toss the distractions, get on our feet, and build us some houses. 

In fact, though, the housing plan is all about process — two kinds to be exact. 

One, litigation, is exactly the kind of process war that Green wants to avoid, but it’s probably unavoidable.

The second is a process that needs to be in place if there is any chance that the housing plan will work. For now, call this a group process.

For both grandiose and practical reasons, litigation is not going to go away. Big picture, the plan raises key constitutional questions about the proper use of emergency powers, the basis of the governor’s plan.

Governor Josh Green surrounded by members of his administration holds the signed emergency proclamation for the media to record the historic moment
Gov. Josh Green announced a state housing crisis earlier this year. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That gives someone challenging an emergency order a leg to stand on. It’s a wobbly leg in the sense that there is a decent chance she might lose that argument in court because when it comes to using emergency powers, governors have a lot of latitude.

But, hey, so what? A lawsuit is a potent weapon even if you lose because lawsuits mean delays, and delays can give you leverage.

Green’s jaw-dropping plan is to build 50,000 houses in five years. Five years!

More power to him, but in Hawaii nothing important, like say a wildfire mitigation plan, gets done in five years.

Litigation slows things down. Good chance that delays work for the opponents and very much against the governor’s goals.

That has a lot to do with the recent changes Green made to his plan.

The governor has tried to appease the opponents by converting them from warriors to peaceniks. He has made the process more transparent, increased the opportunity for public participation, and added Hawaii’s laws about cultural and environmental protections back into the process.

A peace offering? An attempt to get an armistice in the war against process? Will it work?

Possibly, but I’d bet against it because the process warriors may still have the will and wherewithal to fight. And there is no sign yet that the opposition is backing off their lawsuits.

I love the term “working group.” It tickles the senses the way that saying the terms “chocolate cake” or “Spam musubi” tickles the taste buds. 

Anointing something as a working group does not mean they will actually work. Here is a summary of the tons of research about groups: how they work is mysterious and unpredictable.

To give you a more immediate reality test, our Legislature just set up six “working groups” to deal with brush fire hazards. I’m betting that there are no more than six people in Hawaii who think brush fire tragedies will be averted because the legislators are now on the case. 

We’re skeptical about legislative working groups because they have a bad history.

The challenge for the housing work group, though is different. It’s that the group has no history — no rules, no customs, no norms, or tested procedures, all of which are necessary to make a group function in a timely and fair way. 

Sometimes a working group works because that kind of openness and newness creates a flexibility and mutual respect that starting from scratch can encourage.

At other times, this lack of process can cause disagreement and time-wasting battles when there are not set ways to resolve them — process wars with no processes to stop them.

Kakaako Waterfront Park and downtown Honolulu, Aug. 28, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Gov. Josh Green plans to build 50,000 houses in five years. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Believe me, I understand the way existing rules can stifle and destroy. After all, I worked for the University of Hawaii for over 40 years. I also know from my past conflict work that making a new group work is extraordinarily difficult and time consuming.

The working group damn well better work because it is the linchpin. The housing plan cannot succeed unless that group succeeds.

Group success depends as much on the art and science of process expertise as it does on housing expertise.

“Beyond Barriers” does not want a Mickey Mouse and can’t expect to find a Mickey Rooney. So, how about an alternative Mickey as a guide? Mickey Jagger.

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones have been together for over 50 years. They still rock.

How have they stayed together for so long? According to music writer Trish McCall, traditionally when the band members disagree, the have learned to defer to each other’s strength.

Also, they have lasted so long because of, as she puts it, “their grounding in the blues.”

“The blues,” McCall says, “taught them — really how to be economical. How to be concise. How to be epigrammatic. And you saw that both in the way they wrote their songs and the way they wrote their lyrics. They were always right to the point.”

Concise, not talking too much, getting at the heart of things, and knowing when to shut up and listen. That sounds like a first-rate model for the housing working group to follow.

Making “Beyond Barriers” work. Like Jumping Jack Flash, it’s a gas.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great insight and reality humor. As many have expressed, quick housing is possible with prefab homes, or even trailers, brought in, unloaded and literally sprung up. The big question is why, or why not? Is it that the unions want nothing to do with prefab, or anything that their members don't have their hands in, or on? 50K units are not even remotely possible in 5 years without this solution being a large part of it. An condo takes about 3 years to build, when they get in the ground and yields an average of 400-500 units, so you would only need 100 new buildings to be planned, approved and built to reach this goal. Better get started soon!

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

The Plantations knew a productive workforce needed housing. A house, doggie, kids, garden, lanai. And Voila, in 2 shakes the Camps were built.Sure, in the beginning the Camps may have been used to separate ethnicities, but only for a minute.Many of these 100 yr old structures survive and are perfect with remodeling.Point is, IF THE COUNTY or State wanted housing, IT WOULD BE BUILT.There are thousands of suitable acres adjacent to infrastructure cores.Housing is all yak yak poho words.And don't forget, a "tiny home" is on fact a cute trailer.10 thousand trailer prefab homes can be transported in ONE container Cargo ship. One trip. One ship. Thousands of tiny houses.I prefer regular housing, but if the Elites gabblygook on tiny homes, get real, bring in the trailers. Leave out the meth, shrooms, crack and fat-filled tube tops and alkyholick stereotype.There ain't no will to have housing. BUT-There is a way

Fairhouser · 1 month ago

Shucks. Witty essay, but seeing the headline, I thought you meant something else... Why not put on a "show" as in a display of 'pre-approved' small houses ? ("The Hawai'i Small Home Show") It might address the middle income tranche of housing needs, placing some of the solution in their hands.You can go to a big-box retailer and walk past a line of pre-fab garden sheds, from 5×5 to 10x15; it's not a stretch to display "mini-homes", relatively easy to put up (though requiring professional utility hook-ups: electrical, plumbing). Put it in Campbell Industrial Park, or wherever. Families trying to keep the kids in Hawai`i can look-see what options they have to house them on their lots, rather than send them off to the mainland, or building sub-optimal add-ons and extensions.The State (and lenders, insurers) can have a say in what brands & options are acceptable, families can see concrete (no pun) options with relatively fair estimates of costs and an expectation of compliance with gov't rules. Most people can't afford, and are rightfully leery of, shopping for services (architects, contractors, permits) but might make the investment on products & more tactile solutions.

Kamanulai · 1 month ago

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