Between growth and affordable housing: Finding the middle road

There’s a family that lives down the block from me. They haven’t lived in our neighborhood for very long, but they seem like nice neighbors. They have two dogs and live just off the side of the street. In their car.

I don’t know the details, but we’ve all seen this story before. It is the story of $600,000 median home prices and 45 percent of all home sales going to overseas buyers. It is the story of an island that has 400 more births than deaths every year, and new home construction that can only accommodate half that growth. And it is the story of government policy that has failed to manage these challenges.

With our new 2035 draft General Plan now before the County Council, we have another chance to get this right. However, it seems like the loudest voices are already calling this plan a failure. Some say it should be scrapped because it does not restrict development enough to preserve our island’s character. Others say it does not do enough to encourage development to reduce home prices. I fear that in this debate, both the General Plan’s actual content and policy goals are being overlooked. As a community member who helped develop it, I believe this is a smart, creative plan that can increase affordability, reduce traffic, and protect the natural character of the island.

Some Kauai residents are organizing around the idea that the General Plan should do all it can to restrict development to protect our island’s character and rural nature. And while this slowdown would help preserve the character of our island, it would also cause the price of housing to continue its rapid increase. Home prices are not set in stone but are a product of supply and demand. When fewer homes are built (regardless of the price), existing homes inevitably become more expensive.

On the other side of the spectrum, many of those who believe affordability is Kauai’s most pressing issue believe the plan should focus more on easing up development restrictions. There is no doubt that an increase in new construction would reduce home prices. But building sprawling unregulated developments will also lead to more traffic, a loss of character, and increased government expenses (since the further apart people live, the more it costs to provide municipal services).

Both sides are right about their core issues. We need to control growth patterns to retain the character of our towns, minimize traffic, and control government spending. And we need to allow more construction to reduce home prices. Fortunately, there is a middle road. One where the trade-offs are not zero-sum.

This path is spelled out in the new draft General Plan. The plan recognizes that we need more home construction while also doing more to preserve the character of our island. Nearly every section of the plan, from health to housing to climate change, comes back to this theme of increasing the density and the livability of our current towns rather than continually expanding outward.

To achieve these aims, the plan encourages development within our existing town cores — especially Lihue — by reducing the regulatory burden for infill development, by encouraging both commercial and residential development in close proximity (or even stacked on top of each other), and by improving pedestrian infrastructure and connectivity.

The plan lays out policy to more easily allow homeowners to add ‘ohana units on residentially zoned land and proposes updates to the building code to reduce the cost of construction. To avoid the sprawling low-density luxury subdivisions we’ve seen over the last decade, it calls for allowing future housing developments to only be located in designated growth areas and it proposes a mandate that new subdivisions maximize their allowable density and build a mixture of hometypes (such as duplexes and other types of multifamily units) to ensure affordability.

It converts large swathes of residentially zoned land outside of Lihue, Princeville, and Waimea into agricultural land in order to preserve open space and ensure that our towns don’t bleed into each other. And the plan allows each community to determine the form of development they want within their town cores.

Policies like these have all been shown to be effective at preserving open space, stabilizing home prices, controlling traffic, and reducing inequality.

Ironically, the goal of these cutting-edge planning tools is to shift our communities back toward the types of neighborly, affordable, and walkable towns and villages that our grandparents and great-grandparents would happily recognize.

To be clear, these are not all perfect solutions and the General Plan is not a perfect document. For instance, while I strongly support the chapter on climate change, I believe the chapter on tourism doesn’t go far enough to address growth in that sector.

For the plan to be successful, all of us must get involved. Read the plan, share your thoughts with the County Council, and then let’s all use our voices to ensure that future administrations and county councils follow through on the policies we’ve chosen.

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Luke Evslin is a life-long resident of Kapaa and the co-owner of Kamanu Composites. He served on the Community Advisory Committee for the new General Plan update and is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration with a focus in public policy from USC.

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