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Honolulu's acting planning department director says staffing is top priority

Dawn Takeuchi Apuna.jpg
City and County of Honolulu
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Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, acting director, City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting

At the start of his administration in 2021, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi appointed Dean Uchida as director, and Dawn Takeuchi Apuna as deputy of the city's Department of Planning and Permitting.

As Deputy Director, Takeuchi Apuna oversaw the day-to-day personnel operations, while also handling projects addressing oversized residential homes, known as "monster homes," and short-term vacation rentals.

Today, she is now the department's acting director, after Uchida and DPP's chief innovation strategist suddenly resigned. She takes over a department that has been beleaguered with inefficiencies and corruption allegations.

Takeuchi Apuna tells HPR the resignations were a shock. And since then, it has been "nonstop."

"We were on this 20-month journey together, trying to come up with ideas to correct some of the problems," she said. "So when he said that he was resigning it was shocking that my partner would no longer be there to keep moving forward."

Prior to DPP, Takeuchi Apuna served as a state deputy attorney general, and a chief planner at the state public housing authority.

"Mostly, I think I've had to really rethink what the plan moving forward is," she said. "What's next steps, and how do we continue operations while moving forward, with a lot of the improvements Dean and I had begun working on."

DPP faces a handful of major challenges — from staffing to regulating short-term rentals. One of the more pressing issues is permitting. However, Mayor Blangiardi believes they can be overcome with "the right leadership in place."

"The challenges facing DPP are constant and well-known — it's the manner in which we're going to approach those problems that continues to evolve, and we're excited to have Dawn Takeuchi Apuna step into her role as the department's acting director as the important work continues," Mayor Blangiardi told HPR.

Staffing and Permitting

Unfilled vacancies aren't just an issue at DPP, but also a challenge for other city departments. But the shortage at DPP impacts one of the city's major economic industries — construction.

"We have 20,000 applications that come through us per year," Takeuchi Apuna told HPR. "We just have a handful of plan reviewers, so it just doesn't make sense. The numbers don't make sense proportionally to the amount of permits that come through."

According to Takeuchi Apuna, DPP has a 25% vacancy rate — or 80 open positions. Most of those openings are in the permitting division, which is responsible for reviewing plans of projects and issuing permits to allow construction to move forward.

To address the shortage in the permitting division in the short term, Takeuchi Apuna says the department has asked staff in other divisions to help permitting in reviewing applications whenever possible.

Takeuchi Apuna says since August, DPP has hired roughly 20 more people. She adds although hiring new people takes time out of an already strained staff — the department still needs to build up its capacity.

"We're deficient in training, and some of our standard operating procedures and our technology," she tells HPR.

"We're trying to just bring things up to a standard that makes it so we can do our job, and we can work at a better pace. I think a lot of the things that we have going on are outdated, and just not up to industry standards."

Another issue with staffing is retention. The department's director under former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell's administration, Kathy Sokugawa, had told the City Council on several occasions that retaining staff was one of the main reasons leading to DPP's shortage. One of the main causes for people leaving is salary — particularly going into the private sector.

Council Chair Tommy Waters told HPR he strongly supports paying DPP employees more based on their training and position.

Takeuchi Apuna believes compensation is just one component of retaining staff.

"These aren't easy jobs. I think we need to look closely at how we can retain our employees, and make their daily lives better. Whether, it's providing more capacity, so they don't feel like they're overburdened or overworked. And there's just a lot of things that we can do — in addition to getting the correct salaries for people to have them stick around."

DPP has faced added scrutiny in recent months due to delays and uncertainty in the permitting process. During a town hall meeting earlier this year, former director Uchida told residents that delays could take between six months and two years.

Several architects told HPR the most significant change is the addition of a pre-screen in the review process. Takeuchi Apuna says she also believes that's where the backlog is happening.

"The pre-screening process is where we get just basic information about the permit application," she said. "We're looking at getting a bot that uses software to filter through that faster than humans can — so that's somewhere on the horizon in the next few months."

While a bot to improve the process is still in the works, Takeuchi Apuna said she is committed to working with the administration, City Council and private sector to resolve staffing and permitting issues.

However, she said that instead of changing the entire permitting process, DPP may begin efforts to help applicants submit a plan that doesn't require a lot of "back and forth."

"It's as close as you can get your plans, your application that meets all the requirements, the faster it will go through the process," she said. "Besides trying to change the process, I think a good part of it is helping the industry and the design professionals provide what exactly we're looking for."

Takeuchi Apuna said she is continuing the former director's meetings with industry groups to get their perspective and discuss ways to improve processes.

"The department is adding new positions to reduce plan and development review time, reduce permitting backlogs and expand operations to keep up with industry demands," Blangiardi said. "Culturally, the kind of transformation that needs to happen at DPP has to come from within, not through the hiring of outside consultants or analysts."

DPP & the new short-term rental law

On Oct. 23, the city's new regulations on short-term vacation rentals go into effect. When Bill 41 (21) was signed into law in April, DPP had requested seven full-time positions to enforce the new rules.

The resignations of two of the department's top officials came a month before the new law goes into effect.

But Takeuchi Apuna says DPP has taken steps to begin enforcing the new law — which increases the minimum amount of time a unit can be rented without a permit from 30 to 90 days.

"We've had to pull some inspectors from other areas that can really focus on that, and be ready," she said. "But we are confident that we'll be ready to roll on that date."

Takeuchi Apuna said there are roughly 800 non-conforming short-term rentals that DPP has identified. However, the department is waiting to hear from platforms Airbnb and Expedia to get a better gauge of Oʻahu's inventory.

The modernization of DPP is still underway, but Takeuchi Apuna emphasized improvements are being made every day at the department.

"I can see how people have anxiety or are concerned about the department," she said.

"There's a lot of good staff and people that really mean well, and want to change the perspective of DPP. And I think if we continue to move towards the modernization, and try to fix a lot of the problems that are going on — that at some point, hopefully soon, people will see that we do a lot of good things. And in time, I think people will see that."

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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