Let’s get serious about growing our own food

  • Contributed photo

    Taylor Kaluahine Reid

  • Contributed photo

    Jim Edmonds

Editor’s note: The following column is part of an ongoing series of columns looking into the affordable housing issue on Kauai.

There are many micro and macro issues and barriers that compound our housing crisis — even besides the fact that our visitors are buying 45 percent of our homes that are sold, and renting many more.

But today let’s focus on how we can increase affordable housing for our farmers and the recent history of Kauai’s agricultural lands. Truly affordable shelter (housing) is certainly a high priority, but even more basic to survival and quality of life … is food!

As we are “The Garden Isle,” we honor and fiercely protect our “rural nature and lifestyle” — which is greatly enhanced by the fact that only 7 percent of Kauai is zoned for development and we want to keep it that way. Majority of this un-developed land is owned by the state government, the Robinson Family, Grove Farm, Alexander & Baldwin, and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

The ultimate goals are to become a sustainable island, not have to import 90 percent of our food and energy, and to become true stewards of our land. After all, it’s what grounds us, feeds us, and keeps us connected to our roots. So how did we get in this mess? Seriously, the quandary in which the average local resident has to work so hard but still can’t even afford to rent a house … let alone buy a piece of land?

Unfortunately, agriculturally zoned land remains highly desirable to Mainland/foreign buyers, offering them space, privacy and the fantasy of “living off the land,” and (for the deeper pockets) a piece of the pie.

Currently, ag zoned property is allowed one farm dwelling for the first acre and one additional farm dwelling for each additional three “buildable” acres in the same tax map parcel (and each complete parcel gets just one guest house) but no more than five dwelling units may be developed on any one parcel — even if it’s thousands of acres.

The only way to have more homes on one piece is to go through the long, expensive and very sketchy process of changing the zoning at the state and county level and then subdividing. Many people harbor the misperception that CPRs (Condominium Project Regimes) increase density. They don’t.

During the last 30 years or so, many of our smaller ag pieces have been turned into “gentlemen farms” — which are usually large houses, built on 2- to 5-acre parcels, with minimal, if any, agricultural activity and maybe a couple of horses or a field of exotic palms, so they can qualify for the ag designation and lower land tax rates.

These pieces were often divided into CPRs — which gives them a separate apartment deed — so often the owner would sell off a few home sites, helping to pay for the land s/he kept. This trend, among many other things, has driven the price of agricultural property through the roof — and made it extremely difficult for local, real farmers to purchase and own their land.

We’ve often said that there’s nothing one can grow — that’s legal — that will pay for agricultural land on Kauai! Although there are a few intrepid farmers out there who have somehow figured it out. They deserve a reward!

In one case, CPRs actually were indirectly responsible for increasing density on land. There were a couple of large pieces, mostly in Moloaa, that only had the right to five farm dwellings. But the owners chose to break those pieces up into many more CPR units than the allotted dwelling sites — for farmers. That left many of the owners with only the right to build barns or outbuildings … as they didn’t have legal farm dwelling sites.

This enabled them to buy land much cheaper but it also made it illegal for them and their employees to live on their land — even though they were and are actually farming that land and producing food and other crops that benefit the larger community. Most of the “gentlemen farms” provide no ag produce for the community.

And we’re sure you won’t be shocked to hear that many of the real farmers went ahead and lived on their farms anyway — just doing what they needed to do to get by! Well, you know Kauai.

So that’s pretty much the situation that forced the Farm Worker Housing Bill (No. 903) to be pushed through in 2009. This ordinance allows farmers — who dedicate their land to agriculture and generate an annual gross income of at least $35,000/year (for the preceding two consecutive years) — to build up to three farm worker dwellings totaling no more than 1,800 square feet combined. This new law attempted to ease the plight of some farmers (who were on CPRs with no legal house sites) and enable them to at least have some housing for themselves and their workers, but it didn’t work for everyone, for several reasons.

Just two of the examples why it doesn’t work: 1) how do you get to $35,000 of revenue if you can’t afford farm workers because you can’t offer them affordable housing on your land? 2) How can you expand your farm (and need for workers) to get economies of scale if you can only have a maximum of three dwellings for your own family and your workers? Not to mention that it still only allows very little living space for the workers on a very large farm.

So … just how can we help ourselves to have more local food production and preserve our “rural lifestyle” and improve this situation for current and future bona fide farmers?

The federal government has 15 definitions of “rural.” Most of them just mean “not urban,” but most of us know that preserving our rural character requires economically viable farming — which requires both an affordable place for farmers and the ag workers to live and also most of the land being covered with crops or open space covered with vegetation. Residential “sprawl” is the opposite of this.

The county is working on updating the next General Plan right now, which will set our direction through 2035, and many concerned citizens are making a lot of compelling suggestions that would improve the situation.

In order to expand housing opportunities for farm owners and their farm employees, here are a few ideas (in no particular order; we consider them all urgent) that our citizens have suggested that the Kauai County Council consider:

1. Structure all county sales or leasing (and work with private parties and developers) to prioritize selling and renting farm worker housing units affordably to local residents (10-year residency and/or those who grew up here and are returning).

2. Amend the Farm Worker Housing Use Permit section of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO), to allow up to three farm dwellings (totaling no more than 1,800 square feet, combined) per either:

A) Each additional 10 buildable acres on one Tax Map Key (TMK) (above the current, initial five homes on 13 buildable acres) if they qualify under the farm worker housing guidelines above. No CPRs should be allowed above the 5 units on the initial buildable 13 acres, unless they were in place at the time of this amendment; or

B) Three farm dwellings (totaling no more than 1,800 square feet, combined) per each $35,000 of farm/ag gross revenue generated on the same parcel for two consecutive years (including conditional permits as described in No. 6).

3. Establish an Affordable Housing Emergency Task Force immediately, consisting of government and citizen representatives, which could work with the Planning Department and the County Housing Agency and public and private development efforts to develop a plan to solve the farm worker housing shortage base on a budget and a timetable.

4. Permit and facilitate tiny houses as farm dwellings.

5. Prioritize researching, adopting and permitting new technologies and ideas and sustainable, off-grid construction, such as, but not limited to, solar hot water and electricity, composting toilets and water catchment (rain and surface water). This could save a huge amount of money, time and “hu hu” when building. A huge portion of the people on the Big Island still use only permitted catchment systems, even now.

6. Allow additional rental units for affordable farm worker housing on TMKs and CPRs that are ag dedicated and qualify under the farm worker housing guidelines above. No additional CPRs should be allowed for these additional rental units.

7. Facilitate and incentivize farm worker housing permits and educate potential participants and facilitate participation.

8. Allow conditional farm worker housing units during a “new farm startup” or farm expansion period of up to 5 years in exchange for initial approval and close annual review (by a Farm Worker Housing Board made up of farmers) of progress towards the $35,000 of farm related gross income.

9. Research and implement a mechanism to provide for legalization of existing unpermitted farm worker housing ASAP, provided that it meets the requirements imposed on similar new permit requests.

10. Remove tax penalties for long-term spare room rentals (to ag workers) on agriculturally zoned land.

11. Enact significant County Conveyance Tax on speculative sales on ag land (less than 2 years after purchase — unless with reasonable justification) and all property sales to non-resident buyers, with all receipts to be put into the county housing fund.

12. Enact substantial tax on farm worker housing units left empty for longer than three months with all revenue to go to the county affordable housing fund.

13. Structure all county sales or leasing (and work with private parties and developers) to maintain future affordability and prevent “flipping” of farm worker housing.

14. Many farmers and land owners on CPRs worry about getting their neighbors in trouble for any unpermitted structures they may have — since the county will come out and inspect all units of the original parcel — and this keeps many CPR neighbors from permitting new construction.

So we suggest that the county cease to administer CPRs as the one original TMK — for permitting purposes — but rather recognize the individual CPR units as discretely entitled units, in the same way that they are being taxed by the county and have been allowed separate deeds under state law.

15. We strongly suggest that the county immediately cease and discourage all efforts to attract tourists to Kauai — until the Farm Workers Affordable Housing Market For Sale and For Rent are — and remain — healthy and balanced, 50 percent of the island’s food is grown locally and the island’s infrastructure can meet the needs of the expanding resident population and the increase in visitors in order to maintain and improve quality life and experience for both residents and visitors.

We know that some will say that tourism is our bread-and-butter — and that is true — but so are our farmers! We feel that tourism has currently reached the point of perpetual growth and has grown, and is continuing to grow, beyond the ability of the island’s infrastructure to support it — and our citizens to tolerate it. We want our visitors to have a wonderful experience — and they will, if there aren’t so many of them — but our emergency affordable housing crisis is severely exacerbated by the visitors who rent a large number of our homes to visit extensively, or to explore living here, and who now purchase at least 45 percent of the units sold here.

A) We feel that it is time to re-define and re-design the Kauai Tourism Authority so that its mandate is the prudent and practical management of tourism to not exceed the carrying capacity and therefore preserve quality of life for residents and quality of experience for tourists.

B) And isn’t it time to enact additional substantial county property tax on all resorts and vacation rentals to slow the growth of tourism — with all new funds to go into the county affordable housing funds (or perhaps 50/50 toward infrastructure needs and other impacts of tourism)?

There must be strict monitoring and enforcement with severe penalties that remove any economic incentive for violating zoning or permit conditions. A condition of the permit should be very limited for any appeal rights and the loser of any appeal should pay all related costs for both parties.

Most of these affordable and adaptive accommodations will help to enable individuals and families to farm full-time, and not be forced to take a job in town to pay rent and transportation costs. On-farm housing is an essential building block to reclaiming Kauai’s food security in perpetuity.


Jim Edmonds is a 44-year resident of Hawaii and real estate broker at Emerald Isle Properties in Kilauea since 1988. Taylor Kaluahine Reid, born and raised on the North Shore, is a University of Hawaii Manoa graduate and a Realtor at Emerald Isle Properties.

  1. Tim Henderson November 26, 2017 8:17 am Reply

    Good topic! You might be interested in this story about how a California farm built affordable housing, thinking it would be for immigrants on temporary visas, but then found out their regular crew was happy to come if they had the affordable housing so they filled their work crews that way!

  2. randy kansas November 27, 2017 5:21 am Reply

    we live in an apartment, along with many other neighbors and have no room to grow food;

    the produce at the farmers market is fresh, but limited and we cannot afford to shop there;

    its cheaper at Walmart and that’s all we can afford;

  3. Bill heider December 5, 2017 7:19 am Reply

    Farming is for migrants like Mexicans and Filipinos. Are you retarded?

  4. Spencer mack April 27, 2021 12:33 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing this! How could I stay notified of any updates?

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