City Pushes for Monster Home Crackdown While Streamlining Building Permits

Oct 18, 2018

Homeowners and construction industry workers demonstrate outside Honolulu Hale in support of building permit reform.
Credit Ryan Finnerty / Hawaii Public Radio

Homeowners and members of Oahu’s construction industry rallied outside Honolulu Hale Thursday morning to highlight a growing backlog of building permits. The Building Industry Association says months-long delays in the permitting process are harming local businesses, and homeowners. The demonstration was meant as a show of support for City Council Bill 64, which would streamline the permitting process using lessons learned from other cities.

Several of the homeowners present expressed frustration with the lengthy permitting process. Tiffany Kane and her family were expecting to move into a newly completed home on their Kaimuki family plot in August, but only just received their building permit earlier this month. She estimated the delay has already cost the family 15-thousand dollars in rental costs while the land sits empty. The family tore down the existing structure that had been in the family for four generations to expand. They expect to have four generations of family members living in the home once it is completed. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell appeared before demonstrators to express his support for Bill 64.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

BIA President-Elect Marshall Hickocks told those assembled that local businesses “are up against the wall” with tens of millions of dollars in potential work tied up in the permitting process. He pointed to a shortage of inspectors and permit processers at the City Department of Permitting and Planning, suggesting that low salaries are the cause. Mayor Kirk Caldwell has admitted publicly that salary levels are making it difficult to attract qualified applicants and that he is open to working with the city council to raise wages.

Caldwell has been engaged in a multi-front debate over building permits. On Wednesday the Honolulu Planning Commission heard public testimony on two bills to regulate so-called “monster homes.” One bill was sponsored by the City Council, the other by the Mayor’s Department of Planning and Permitting.  

City Council Chair Ernie Martin authored Bill 64 and expressed his intent to pass the measure.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

Monster homes are becoming a common site in many of Oahu’s neighborhoods. On plots where single family homes once sat there are now high-occupancy structures, some with 15 or more bedrooms and 10 or more bathrooms. There often isn’t enough parking on the property for that many occupants, causing congestion on the streets.   

Most monster homes are billed as multi-generational family housing, but many residents tell stories of the large dwellings being used as boarding houses or even short term rentals for visitors.

After the Mayor’s bill to regulate short-term rentals was voted down by the Planning Commission earlier this month, Caldwell made a rare appearance before the advisory commission, to advocate for his monster home bill.  He also asked planning commissioners to reconsider their votes on the vacation rental issue.

The city’s regulatory proposal for monster homes focused on a few key areas like capping density on a given plot of land, increasing parking requirements, and making a more stringent permitting process for large homes.

A so-called "monster home" in Honolulu's Kaimuki neighborhood.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka / Hawaii Public Radio

One of the most important ways the city plans to prevent monster home construction is by limiting what is called Floor Area Ratio. This is the measure of how much usable floor space a structure as compared to the total plot of land. The City Department of Permitting and Planning wants to cap Floor Area Ratio at .7 – meaning that 30% of any home plot would be reserved for parking and green space to reduce run off.

Elizabeth Krieger, who oversees zoning and permitting at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, told commissioners that the proposal is not intended to restrict multigenerational homes or residential care homes for the elderly. However, distinguishing true multi-generational homes from boarding houses or even large structures being used for short term rentals can be a challenge. Currently DPP building inspector have very little legal authority to investigate owners suspected of violating zoning or permit laws.

The Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to approve the DPP bill, but lowered the Floor Area Ratio limit to .6. That change came after several local architects testified that an average size lot with .7 FAR could still house upwards of 20 individuals while still adhering to zoning rules. The Commission also voted not to recommend the City Council proposal. Both bills now go back the City Council for revisions and a final vote.