When Missy Mowat Maii bought a home in Maunalani Heights overlooking the city, below her property was a single old-style Kaimuki house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a jabong tree in front.
But the neighboring property was sold about a year ago, and its new owner has since razed the old house and jabong tree, and put up a large, three-story house that obstructs the view from her lanai. What’s more, she said, plans submitted to the city show a second, three-story house will be built on the 10,500-square-foot lot adding up to what will be at least 16 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms.
She’s been told that the new owner has explained the second house is where his mother will be living, but Maii said she’s skeptical, given the size.
Maii said she’s wondering how the big increase in living space will affect sewer lines, parking and through traffic in her neighborhood.
“That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s going to be a mess.”
Officials with the city Department of Planning and Permitting, which is tasked with enforcing zoning and building violations, say their hands are tied on many of the complaints because they can cite or fine only people who are not meeting code requirements. Most of the large-scale houses meet zoning and building code requirements and are able to obtain building permits, they said.
As a result, Honolulu City Council members are looking at different ways to deal with the growing number of large-scale structures, which some are now dubbing “monster houses,” sprouting in Kaimuki, Palolo, Liliha and other older neighborhoods in the city.
Neighbors have complained that the houses— some with 20-plus bedrooms — are not only unsightly, but cause headaches related to traffic, street parking, sewage and storm runoff. Opponents of the large-scale houses also believe that many of them are being used to operate illegal bed-and-breakfast establishments or other transient vacation units, thus taking away from residential housing stock during a statewide housing crunch.
As a result, Council members Carol Fukunaga and Ann Kobayashi have introduced two bills aimed at addressing the issue. They are scheduled to get their first airing at Wednesday’s monthly meeting.
Bill 94 places a moratorium on all large-scale homes in residential neighborhoods until the planning department and city officials can evaluate the proliferation of large-scale houses and figure out what kind of permanent regulatory controls can be enacted.
Bill 100 creates a “high density residential” real property tax category to separate the monster houses from other residential properties for tax purposes. Besides requiring those in the new category to pay at a higher tax rate, the bill would shield neighboring property owners from higher taxes that might be caused by a newly built, higher-priced monster house.
The two measures come on the heels of Resolution 17-276, which calls on the Caldwell administration to submit a bill limiting the number of bedrooms and wet bars in single-family homes, as well as other restrictions.
‘May be priced out’
Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who introduced the proposal, leaves the number of homes and wet bars blank and subject to further discussion.
Fukunaga said she’s heard from constituents from Pauoa to Kamehameha Heights to Halawa. She described the proliferation of monster houses as “a phenomenon associated with older, single-family residential neighborhoods,” she said. One house, on Houghtailing Street, reportedly has 28 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms, she said.
The moratorium is supposed to be a short-term measure until the planning department can come up with a more permanent plan, Fukunaga said. “The fear (among those living near monster houses) is they may be priced out of the neighborhoods they have lived in for a long time,” she said.
Kobayashi said longtime residents in some of the neighborhoods are worried their assessments will rise dramatically if their properties are in the same area and tax classification as monster houses. “Palolo is not used to having a home selling for over a million dollars,” she said in explaining why she wants to create a new property tax category for the monster houses.
Indications are that many of the larger buildings are designed to be bed-and-breakfast establishments or some other type of transient vacation units. “That doesn’t solve our housing problem,” she said.
Ozawa said he’s received complaints from Kuliouou to Kapahulu.
Stricter laws have to be part of the solution because city inspections have historically been spotty, Ozawa said. He’s proposing the Land Use Ordinance “address the problem on the front end rather than on the back end — before the house is built,” he said.
Another idea he is exploring is to require those seeking building permits with a large number of bedrooms or wet bars to go to the Council for approval, rather than the planning department, and to bring affidavits stating that the homes are to be used for single-family use only, Ozawa said.
“If you’re going to build 25 bedrooms or 28 bedrooms like we’ve seen on Houghtailing (Street in Kalihi) and say with a straight face that it’s for your family, you know what? Come on in and tell everybody the truth,” he said. “Prove it. Because you’re overwhelming the area.”
Department Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa, in a statement, said she won’t comment on the moratorium bill introduced by Fukunaga and Kobayashi until she reviews it.
As for the issue of large-scale houses, Sokugawa said that DPP is required to issue a building permit for a plan that meets zoning, building, electrical and plumbing codes.
“We cannot deny a building permit for a large house on the assumption that it will be illegally occupied,” she said. “However, we can and have been requiring a signed restricted covenant from the developer/owner attesting that the building will be used only as a one, single-family dwelling.”
That’s of little consolation to Donna Shimabuku, who said the tranquility of the neighborhood she’s lived in since she was a child — on another portion of Koko Drive — has become a source of anxiety after a new owner two properties away began building a large, eight-bedroom, two-story house about a year ago.
“No. 1, it’s a total eyesore,” she said. “And they have total disregard for the neighborhood.”
Residents there have taken up parking on Koko Drive, which, by her house, is a narrow lane that has no sidewalks and cannot fit two cars heading in opposite directions at the same time, Shimabuku said. “We have to pull over into somebody’s driveway or onto the shoulder of the road,” she said.
The neighbor told her it’s just his family living there, she said. But different cars come and go, so she believes it’s being operated as a vacation rental or a dormitory.
One family next door to the large-scale house has put its home up for sale and moved elsewhere. “It’s really sad because they were good neighbors,” Shimabuku said. “But they got really discouraged.”
Shimabuku said she supports the proposals being offered by Council members. “Actually, I’d like a permanent moratorium on the monster houses,” she said.
Maii said she supports the idea of taking away some of the decision-making from DPP, which has been slow to respond to her concerns or provide information for her. Additionally, the city should look at laws that require builders to tear down what they put up illegally instead of giving them approvals after the fact.
“Make the plan, get the permit, then start the work,” Maii said. “If they had to take down the structure, they would think very hard before doing something prior to getting the permits.”