Tuesday, August 25, 2015


“Accessory Dwelling Unit” bill contains no funds for enforcement—so won’t be enforced

by Larry Geller

Honolulu’s City Council plans to approve a new class of housing unit that is intended to somewhat relieve the chronic shortage of homes on Oahu. The units are spoken of as “small” but 800 sq. ft. is larger than the condo apartment I’m living in right now.

The proposed regulations are intended to prevent their diversion into illegal transient rentals and keep them affordable. Unfortunately, regulations need to be enforced, and the Council has included no new appropriation in the bill for enforcement.

The current version of Honolulu City Council Bill 20 (CD1) is not on line, although that link may eventually work. The bill, as introduced, is here

Honolulu cannot enforce its current regulations so a proliferation of new, cheap-to-build additions will be a boon to the construction trades but no more enforceable than current, similar rules for so-called “ohana” units. Without inspections and enforcement, anything goes in this town. It’s a way of life, whether in housing or in any other area (restaurants, for example) when there is little chance of ever seeing an inspector for perhaps a couple of years.

Let me illustrate how this works, or rather, doesn’t work.


Here is a house I am familiar with that had an “ohana” unit added in 1989. Due to vegetation on the street side, it is hard to see what is going on.

The additional unit is supposed to be occupied by a family member, but it was built to be rented out and was immediately occupied. The “ohana” was rented as a studio at the market rate. From the front (right side in the illustration) it had a spectacular view, since the location was high in the hills overlooking Honolulu.

Inspections were few and conducted only after plenty of notice. When the inspector arrived on the appointed day, the illegal appliances weren’t there. As soon as the inspector left, the appliances were moved back in. Bottom line, there was no effective enforcement of the “ohana” rules at all.

Next is a case that made the news after illegal structures on the property collapsed. The story is from 2008, and at that time, there were 50 tenants living illegally in a makeshift pole-and-plywood structure that was never caught by inspectors. In order to put up such a monstrosity, the owner of the Kalihi property had to be pretty confident that he could get away with it.

Illegal structureThe picture is stunning, but it is copyrighted and I can’t reproduce it. Please click to the story here and then click on the picture inside, which you can enlarge further with your control key and mouse wheel. Trust me, it is worth your time to see that image.

Now, if anyone thinks that the current homelessness crisis is a recent development, it’s because they have been deceived by the media’s lack of coverage over the years and by our government inaction. Remember, this story is from 2008.

The first snip is about the Kalihi home, the second about the broader housing crisis:

The addition to the home that collapsed and fell into a streambed behind the property was built much like scaffolding — with floors made out of thin wood and tarpaulins used to shield tenants from the sun and rain. There are several such additions on the home, some of which were at one point as high as four stories, neighbors said.

[Honolulu Advertiser, Collapse at Kalihi home reveals 'hidden homeless' struggles, 10/28/2008]

Advocates say the case highlights the dire need for affordable housing in the Islands.

And they say the Gulick Avenue house is not the only place where renters are living in squalid conditions out of necessity.

"There's a whole cadre of people who are living in less than acceptable conditions," said Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, which provides case management to the homeless and pushes for more affordable rentals. "The cost of rent is so high that people are living in structures that are really not sound."

This snip illustrates several important points.

(1) Inspections never caught that large, egregiously illegal structure

(2) The “dire need for affordable housing in the Islands” was well-known in 2008 but nothing effective has been done about it to-date

(3) The social services provided are vital to the well-being of those living in poverty or who are homeless, but do not reduce the need for housing or jobs and a living wage which could change the situation. (“Across the islands, 1 out of every 5 Hawaii residents depends on food aid from the Hawaii Foodbank and its network of agencies.”)

This is important to understand because neither the city nor the state currently have revealed any intention to fund the services that will keep people in their homes. In fact, under Governor Lingle, those services (provided under contract to the Department of Health) were cut, dumping some people onto the streets and resulting in avoidable deaths. The city’s plans call for better coordination of existing services, which clearly have not reversed the annual growth in homelessness or the underlying poverty, much less alleviated the housing shortage.

(4) Honolulu’s planning effort is focused almost entirely on providing expensive homes for the rich and ultra-rich. Even so-called “transit oriented development” pays little more than lip service to creating truly affordable homes. The sunbirds will have an abundance of options (see pic at right) while we hope for a few of those “ADUs” for the rest of our people.

So ADUs are not at all a bad idea, but if the rules are as poorly enforced as are the “ohana” rules, they will fall short of realizing their potential to provide some additional affordable housing in Honolulu.

Related: In Hawaii our housing crisis is one part of the larger poverty crisis that must be solved (12/12/2014)

Planning to the people—we can create better housing for Honolulu (11/30/2014)


These so-called "Ohana Units" have ALREADY proliferated in many Honolulu neighborhoods and to a fault. Try looking around Kaimuki and Palolo Valley. I live in one and there's very few houses in my entire neighborhood that doesn’t have one. Parking is worse than in Hollywood and sharing a kitchen is very difficult. And for my 1-br "ohana" apartment sans kitchen, I'm paying exactly what I once paid for a large, 2-br highrise condo! Granted that was 10 years ago -- and we all know what's happened since. The lack of credible government making progressive public policy in this town (and on so many levels) is appalling and a financial disaster for we in the renting class. Most I know in the creative class are leaving the state or are seriously thinking about it and mediocreity reigns. Sorry for the angst. Misery loves company and I know I have plenty oc company re this subject (bad governance).

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