The Bratton Team

Gov. Josh Green signs Hawaii housing emergency proclamation

An emergency proclamation signed Monday by Gov. Josh Green kick-starts a one-year revolution in how homes are built across the islands with the ambitious goals of quickly getting 50,000 new units up, cutting prices and keeping Hawaii residents from leaving one of the most expensive states in the country while bringing expats home.

A new, 22-member “Build Beyond Barriers” working group that begins meeting in August will be empowered to approve and streamline housing construction projects, especially starting with 12,000 that are now stalled.

Over the next five years, Green wants to see a total of 50,000 homes built, most of them considered “affordable.”

Currently, only an average of 4,000 new homes are built each year.

The result, according to Green’s office, means that Hawaii, compared to the rest of the country:

>> Has the highest cost of living and the “most unaffordable market in the U.S.”

>> Has the country’s “highest level of regulation,” meaning it takes three times longer to obtain building permits, adding $233,000 to $335,000 to the cost of a home.

>> Has the highest median home prices: $1.1 million on Oahu and $850,000 statewide for a single-family unit. Oahu’s median price is 3.4 times the national average, requiring an annual income of $252,000. Condos cost $600,000 statewide and $550,000 on Oahu.

According to the statistics, housing represents 38% of household spending. And housing prices have shot up 1,200% in the past 45 years while incomes increased only 600%.

In 2022, 20 residents left Hawaii every day, and more Native Hawaiians now live on the mainland for the first time in state history.

One in 2 people cite housing costs as their reason for leaving Hawaii.

“As we lose our Hawaiian kids, we lose our culture,” Green said at a sometimes emotional ceremony at the state Capitol after signing the emergency proclamation.

His 16-year-old daughter will be going off to college soon, and “I know her mother wants her back here,” Green said.

Green insisted that the proclamation is not intended to circumvent Hawaii laws and rules that protect the environment, historic preservation, Hawaiian burial sites, wetlands or other reviews that can delay construction for years and drive up prices.

But, Green said, “You’ll see housing prices drop.”

In helping to craft the emergency proclamation, Nani Medeiros, the state’s chief housing officer, consulted with over 200 developers, environmentalists, Native Hawaiians and other interests, often multiple times.

The Sierra Club will be represented in the new working group but remains “not optimistic” and “extremely concerned,” Executive Director Wayne Tanaka told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Instead, Tanaka said the Sierra Club likely will play the role of “watchdog” over the working group, which includes housing developers.

I’ll be the first to say that we don’t know every single cultural practice out there, we don’t know where all the native indigenous species habitats may be,” Tanaka said. “These are concerns that will be raised.”

One clause of the proclamation allows Medeiros to single-handedly approve projects for exemptions under the proclamation without any input from the working group, Tanaka said.

“Whether it’s the working group or the lead housing officer,” Tanaka said, “I don’t think they have the breadth of expertise and representation in various issue areas, or even the capacity to properly evaluate the breadth of potential impacts and consequences that can accompany any building project, much less all of them.”

“It’s not just environmental protections that are being targeted and suspended,” Tanaka said. “If you look at the language of the proclamation, they’re taking away government transparency, they’re taking away key public procurement processes that guide how taxpayers dollars are spent and ultimately it’s just a glaring example of executive overreach.”

The emergency proclamation, Tanaka said, represents a “slippery slope” with profound and long-term implications.

“To be clear, the projects under this proclamation could impact our social, environmental and cultural landscape for decades and generations to come,” Tanaka said. “A potentially even bigger concern is the fundamentally undemocratic and unconstitutional way that the governor is imposing his policy and ideas on our society.”

David Nakamura, executive director of the affordable-housing developer Mutual Housing Association of Hawaii, called Green’s emergency proclamation a “game-changer.”

“A lot of the regulatory blockage will be freed up,” Nakamura told the Star- Advertiser. “I think it’s going to help a lot of developers like us move projects a little faster at this time. It’s a great help to the industry.”

The Mutual Housing Association of Hawaii is partnering with D.R. Horton to build 180 affordable housing rental units in East Ka­polei, and Nakamura said that Green’s proclamation moves along critical zoning approvals they need.

“It’s a big hurdle, and this legislation will help us clear it,” Nakamura said.

Nakamura is also aware of the weight that this proclamation carries in changing routine processes.

“The regulatory requirements that are in place are good guardrails for all of us — for the community, for the environment — so I think it just has to be handled prudently with this proclamation.”

While Nakamura’s association does not do for-sale housing, he agrees with Green that housing prices could fall.

“All the extra time and delays add to interest costs and financial caring costs, so that alone will help bring down the costs, which I think that will help homeowners in the long run,” Nakamura said.

In response to the concerns of the Sierra Club, Green said, “It’s not about doing things without sunshine; it’s about doing them faster. … We can’t find housing for our children. That is the actual alarm. When we talk about environmental protection, that’s what our administration has been about from Day One. Our record is environmental protection. That is what we are. … We’re losing 14,000 people a year. … We don’t have public school teachers to educate my seventh grader. … But we also are welcoming the Sierra Club and others into the working group. We’re just running government differently.”