Land Use Initiative Helps Hawaii REALTORS® Address Affordable Housing

Land Use Initiative Helps Hawaii REALTORS® Address Affordable Housing

July 2016

The habitable area of any island is limited by definition. On the beautiful Hawaiian islands, the combined effect of vast acreage of protected natural lands, the highest cost of living in the U.S. and a severe shortage of affordable housing brings land use issues into still sharper focus; so do the tents that line many city streets.  The Hawaii Association of REALTORS® (HAR) is taking steps toward review and reform of the state’s complex Land Use System, with a specific goal of clearing road blocks to affordable housing.  The REALTOR® Party is helping.   


“HAR acknowledges our collective responsibility to protect Hawaii’s exceptional natural resources,” says Myoung Oh, the association’s Government Affairs Director.  But, like elsewhere, anyone with development interests in Hawaii must find balance with conservationists, residents and retirees who don’t want new building projects in their back yards; HAR, notes Oh, must constantly combat the perception that its industry is only interested in financial gain.  The other significant challenge, he explains, is that land use in Hawaii is governed by regulations that have been in place since the 1960s and ’70s.  Some of these are simply outdated, and others are redundant; either way, they add costs and unnecessary inefficiencies to the reasonable use of land in the state, including affordable housing.    

Last fall, having reviewed the approval process that a developer seeking to build affordable housing would have to navigate, HAR identified no fewer than seven different layers of land use control.  Even the 201-H statute meant to fast-track affordable housing projects of less than 15 acres didn’t relieve the onerous requirements, including oversight by the quasi-judicial state Land Use Commission.  Investigating the possibility of introducing a bill in the 2016 Legislative Session to delegate state land use jurisdiction over 201-H projects to the respective county governing body, HAR turned to the REALTOR® Party for an expert opinion.  A Land Use Initiative review by Robinson & Cole LLC provided thorough analysis of the proposal, and guidance moving forward. 

The review reminded HAR that any proposal reducing the regulatory burden on developers could spur strong opposition.  It advised the association to take the time to collect more data demonstrating how detrimental state jurisdiction is to the development of affordable housing units.  It also advised holding the proposal until all of Hawaii’s counties had completed the process of designating their protected lands, as those boundaries would have bearing on their proposed jurisdiction over 201-H projects.  Finally, it warned that the proposal could attract criticism for not addressing other barriers to affordable housing development.

“This was all valuable feedback,” says Oh, who acknowledges that although ideally, HAR would like to help effect an overall, holistic reform of Hawaii’s Land Use System, its work will be more effective with a needle, than with a hammer. 

He notes that the upcoming election year presents a number of promising opportunities, and that the REALTORS® will be talking with all the candidates for state office, as well as incumbents, about these land use issues.  “It’s a great model, having candidates and elected officials come in and talk to us about what matters to REALTORS® as professionals, and as members of their communities.  We’ll share ideas, and talk about where our efforts have fallen short, and where we can play a role moving forward.  These conversations, informed by the Land Use Initiative review provided by the REALTOR® Party, help our elected officials see us as a partner in solving land use challenges, rather than an opponent.”

HAR is also now in the process of conducting a major consumer survey to gauge sentiment on everything from construction and traffic, to affordable housing, to the perception of REALTORS®.  “It should be very revealing,” says Oh. “We’ll share the data with our legislators, again, as partners.  And we’ll also use it to inform future consumer awareness efforts, to educate the public about the value of REALTOR® advocates.”     

To learn more about how Hawaii’s REALTORS® are taking the lead on addressing the state’s affordable housing issues, contact Myoung Oh, Government Affairs Director of the Hawaii Association of REALTORS®, at 808-733-7060.

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