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Bill moving through Legislature aims to increase densities in urban areas

HILO, Hawai‘i — The state of Hawai‘i’s urban housing density could more than triple under a new zoning proposal sailing through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 3202 — as well as its less-successful counterpart, House Bill 1630 — would authorize the counties to allow “at least two” additional dwelling units to be constructed on a residentially zoned lot within an urban district.

Owners also would be able to subdivide their properties into parcels as small as 2,000 square feet, and counties would be able to allow for smaller parcels by passing local ordinances.

The upshot of these provisions would allow for the development of much denser — and, supporters say, more affordable — housing in Hawai‘i’s urban areas as a means of addressing the ballooning cost of housing throughout the state.

“The most attractive places — particularly for young people, who are who Hawaii is losing — are those with denser housing,” environmental consultant Ron Terry told the Tribune-Herald.

Terry said Hawai‘i used to have a certain style of housing — referred to by housing advocates as “missing middle housing,” such as duplexes, triplexes and townhouses that were eventually pushed out of the state’s zoning codes in favor of single homes on large lots, condominiums or apartment buildings.

“Our zoning codes have a very sketchy history,” Terry said. “They’re outdated at best, and really they’re probably broken. … But (this bill) promotes the kind of housing we used to have.”

Trey Gordner, director of the community data research project Hawai‘i Zoning Atlas, said housing models like duplexes and triplexes were removed from zoning codes ostensibly over concerns about fire safety. But historically, such zoning changes have been implemented throughout the 20th century to maintain and uphold racial segregation across the United States.

“It’s not about good planning, it’s been about making sure you live next to the ‘right sort,’” Gordner said. “That’s been the basis for these minimum lot sizes.”

At the same time, Gordner said, Hawai‘i has a housing crisis in which the price of land on O‘ahu has risen to about $137 per square foot. With zoning codes as they are now, where developers can only build a limited number of single-family homes per parcel, they are incentivized to make those homes as large and expensive as possible to maximize their return on investment.

Terry added that focusing development in already developed areas is more economically practical than promoting the urban sprawl created by the current “large home on a large lot” model — which, he added, tends to be subsidized by the denser areas anyway, in what he called a sort of “subsidy of the rich by the poor.”

A handful of other states already have made similar zoning changes, Gordner and Terry both explained — “and Europe has had this kind of housing forever,” Terry said.

On Hawai‘i Island, Gordner said the vast majority of land is zoned as Forest Reserve or Agricultural, with only about 2.7 percent of the island’s land zoned for homes. Of that fraction, about two-thirds are zoned for single-family, and Gordner said it is these parcels that would be allowed up to three units per lot, assuming sufficient infrastructure exists to support them.

Gordner pointed out that the bill has garnered support from a diverse group of people and organizations: all four county planning directors, including Hawai‘i County’s Zendo Kern, are in favor of the measure. But also nonprofits, including the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, the think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and AARP of Hawai‘i, plus the Hawai‘i Island Chamber of Commerce and various property developers.

“It’s clearly a measure that a lot of different people believe will help the state,” Gordner said.

That said, the bill has received a considerable amount of opposition, largely from individuals concerned about the impact of higher-density housing on their neighborhoods. Many brought up “monster homes,” enormous residences constructed as single-family homes but divided into several units for, sometimes, dozens of renters, to the consternation of Honolulu residents.

“This measure is simply too extreme and exacerbates existing issues without really addressing the need for affordable housing,” wrote Janyce Mitchell. “A 7,500-square-foot lot could have six units on it. Even three units on such a residential lot size would be too many. … Placing a larger number of units in a smaller space may aid developers, but does not offer a desirable place to call home for families.”

Gordner emphasized that the bill includes a provision for counties to refuse permits for additional units if they determine that there is insufficient infrastructure for a given development — for example, if it is found that the roads serving a proposed development are too small for the expected amount of traffic a new development might generate.

“The planning process will still be the same,” Gordner said.

SB 3202 will be discussed Monday at a joint meeting of the House committees on Housing, Water and Land, and Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.

HB 1630 was referred to a pair of Senate committees earlier this month, but no hearings have been scheduled.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky can be reached at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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