HONOLULU — The state House of Representatives is poised to vote on legislation that would allow religious, educational and medical institutions to build housing units on their land for sale or use by their employees and contractors regardless of current zoning restrictions.
HB 814 HD1, which adopts a now-popular approach for expanding affordable housing options while helping key sectors attract and keep needed workers, was unanimously recommended for passage on Friday by the House finance committee.
Specifically, the bill would amend the Hawaii Revised Statutes section on county zoning to include new statutes requiring each county to adopt ordinances allowing the specified categories of institutions to “design, build and construct housing units” on their property as long as the proposed developments are less than 15 acres.
The developments would be exempted from existing regulations on group living, use of land for employee housing and community buildings in plantation community subdivisions and other zoning restrictions.
At the recommendation of the House Committee on Housing, a provision was added requiring that participating institutions retain housing units developed on their property for at least 30 years, a guardrail against short-term profiteering.
Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a nonprofit organization that promotes affordable housing solutions, said the bill would help address the local workforce housing shortage and cost-of-living struggles.
“One of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is to build on-site worker housing,” Higa testified. “By eliminating a worker’s commute, we can save them time and money that can be reinvested in their family and community. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that transportation costs account for more than 15% of household expenditures, making this saving substantial. That’s why HB814 is so important. It will allow hospitals and schools to use the land they own to develop housing for their workers.”
However, the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting opposed the measure, arguing it would give certain groups preference over others and effectively trample county rules.
“We find it problematic that without a connection between the ‘institution’ and the housing that additional rights should be granted to certain landowners, but not others,” said DPP director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna. “We also believe this bill oversteps county homerule responsibilities and overrides county plans and regulations.”
Takeuchi Apuna raised concern that the content of the bill does not match its title, “Relating to Affordable Housing,” because it does not indicate whether the housing units produced will meet the definition of “affordable homes.”
“Who are these homes meant for?” she asked. “The institution’s employees? To be used as a retreat or reward for executives of these institutions? As vacation rentals? Without a clear explanation as to who will be eligible to occupy these units and at what cost, we cannot determine whether the homes are truly in the affordable housing category.”
Under the state constitution, the title of a bill must accurately reflect the single purpose of its contents. The text of the bill does not include the word “affordable” except in the title.
The state Department of the Attorney General also commented on the potential discrepancy and proposed the simple but potentially significant fix of adding the word “affordable” to “housing units” in the initial statement of what qualifying institutions would be allowed to build.
Ultimately, the bill was recommended for passage without further amendment.
Ted Kefalas, director of strategic campaigns for the Grassroot Institute, praised the bill as a positive example of a creative approach to streamlining building permissions and approvals to stimulate housing development. However, he testified that the 30-year requirement for institutions to retain the housing units they develop could prove to be a disincentive.
“It must be stressed that the organizations given this right are nonprofits using their own land, and that their ability to profit in a general sense is thereby constrained,” Kefalas said. “In addition, even if the organizations providing housing via this bill were to obtain some financial benefit from doing so, that should not be seen as a negative if the outcome is to create more affordable housing for Hawaii residents.
“If enacted with the 30-year sale constraint, this bill would create an unnecessary barrier that could discourage nonprofit organizations from building these units, possibly forcing them into a landlord relationship that they are unable or unwilling to maintain,” he said.
Michael Tsai covers local and state politics for Spectrum News Hawaii.