Problem-solving and decision-making by elected bodies can be complex, convoluted and, to some, a veritable conundrum.
Needless to say, in a political environment, the dynamics and pressures inhibiting the introduction of new, out-of-the-box solutions are significant.
The most limiting factors involve money and risk. If a proposal costs money, it is always vigorously challenged. If it is a new idea and thus unproven, by definition it involves some risk, and will often be dead on arrival.
There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that bold proposals and out-of-the-box thinking are hard to come by in a political setting. The good news is that policy-makers are forced to come up with solutions and ideas that minimize both expense and risk.
I believe Bill 2627, which is now before the council Planning Committee, is such a measure. Full disclosure: While on the Council in 2016, I was an original co-introducer, along with Councilmember Mason Chock.
Bill 2627 deals with expanding affordable housing and represents a “pure policy” strategy that costs the county almost nothing. It is a strategy in place in other municipalities in Hawaii and the continental U.S. It therefore seems to overcome the most significant roadblocks to lawmaking: cost and risk.
Alleviating the current severe lack of affordable housing is the goal. Housing availability, especially at the very-low-income levels, is minimal to non-existent, and affordable rentals near job centers are in huge demand.
While there are many strategies to address this issue, Bill 2627 deals with increasing the affordable-housing inventory by allowing current homeowners in Lihue to build additional rental units (ARU). If passed into law, it would allow homeowners in Lihue to build an additional unit, limited in size and intended as a rental to local residents. This additional unit could not be sold as a separate parcel or CPR (condomunium property regime).
Included in Bill 2627 are requirements and conditions intended to minimize negative or unintended consequences. Anyone desiring to build an ARU must be connected to a sewer system (no cesspool or septic systems allowed) and the homeowner must add at least one additional off-street parking stall on their property.
Lihue is the targeted area for this proposal primarily because its development plan calls for increased density, the town’s transportation infrastructure is being consciously developed in a “multi-modal” manner, with accommodations for walking and bike-riding, and it is connected to the county sewer system.
Lihue is a “job center,” with the airport, harbor, hotels, government and major shopping areas all located within relatively close proximity. In addition, Lihue has a “flow-through” traffic design, offering drivers multiple options through town, thus lessening the gridlock that now occurs in many other areas.
Since this area has historically been a home for local residents and not a haven for tourists, vacation renters, or offshore investors, the majority of renters who eventually move into the ARUs that are built will likely be local residents.
The results of this type of proposal in other municipalities have been mixed. Some additional housing has been added as intended, but there has not been a flood of units constructed.
The risks of excessive density, additional cars and parking problems have not been realized due to slow implementation by homeowners who qualify to build the new units. Some municipalities are considering offering further incentives to homeowners designed to encourage more rapid construction of the new rental units.
Even if only a modest amount of new rentals are added to Kauai’s housing inventory, that effort and policy change could be beneficial. For those worried that passing Bill 2627 could be too successful and result in the building of too many new rentals, I would argue further that this would be a good problem to have. However, in order to prevent that risk, the council could put a cap on new units and/or a sunset date on the legislation.
For further perspective consider that the raw cost of developing a single affordable unit by a private developer will range from $200,000 to $300,000 per unit, thus the costs to the county, or any private developer, to create 100 new affordable units would be about $20 to $30 million. Bill 2627 has the potential to create those same 100 affordable rental units at almost zero cost to the county or taxpayer.
The results if successful would be that 100 families have new affordable rental housing, 100 homeowners have new rental income, and 100 building crews have jobs and income while they build those homes. Again, this is all at no to minimal cost to the taxpayer. And if Bill 2627 is not successful? The only price is the cost of the councilmembers’ time.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.