FIRST OF 2 PARTS
As complaints start to pour in over monster houses springing up in older communities from Pearl City to Hawaii Kai, the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting is coming under scrutiny.
Traditional three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes are being replaced by larger-scale houses that are triple in size if not more. Those living near the bigger houses are fretting about parking, sewer capacity and other infrastructure concerns, and the character of their neighborhoods.
With complaints on the rise, the Honolulu City Council and the city Department of Planning and Permitting are trying to assess and address the issues, which are complex, multilayered and in many ways a byproduct of Oahu’s continuing housing shortage.
Some families can’t afford to buy a house on their own and are pooling their money with other relatives to buy property that everyone can live on.
But many believe the larger houses are being used for unauthorized residential or vacation rentals, adult care homes, dormitories and illegal commercial operations.
Whatever their uses, many of them meet existing zoning and building codes, prompting Council members to look at legislation to stem the trend.
“It’s disrupting the character of our neighborhoods on residential-zoned properties along with other negative impacts to the communities such as an overabundance of cars, the lack of parking on the properties themselves, overwhelming the sewage infrastructure, neighborly disputes, the blocking of views,” said Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who introduced legislation that limits size and requires more parking.
The version of Ozawa’s Resolution 17- 276 that advanced out of the Council Zoning and Permitting Committee earlier this month — and likely will be up for a final vote of the full Council on Dec. 6 — would limit the floor-to-area ratio (also known as density) of new residential buildings, require more parking for larger houses and require builders to obtain a conditional use permit from the Council if proposed residential structures are larger than a certain size.
Because there are no regulations on the number of bedrooms or bathrooms allowed, DPP hasn’t traditionally monitored homes with a large number of rooms and only began tracking them in January when Customer Service Branch employees compared notes and started to see an upward trend, acting DPP Director Kathy Sokugawa said.
8 properties cited
DPP records show the department considered 23 building permit applications for houses of eight bedrooms or more in 2017 as of the beginning of October; 13 of the requests have been issued, and two others have been approved but not yet issued. The others are pending.
Among those approved, the largest is an 18-bedroom house on the 3300 block of Kalihi Street. Real property records show it’s on a 13,950-square-foot lot that’s currently empty. The building permit describes the project as a new two-story, single-family dwelling with a wet bar.
A plan for 15 bedrooms and a three-story structure on a 5,000-square-foot lot on Aupuni Street, also in Kalihi, is among the pending applications. Property records show the lot has had a six-bedroom, one-bathroom house and a second dwelling with three bedrooms and one bathroom.
During roughly the same period, DPP closed investigations into complaints commonly associated with large homes at 20 addresses and issued violation notices for eight of them.
A property on the 1300 block of 16th Avenue in Kaimuki, which has two homes totaling 16 bedrooms, was cited for having two occupants in an ohana dwelling who were unrelated to the people living in the primary dwelling. City law says only relatives can live in an ohana dwelling.
Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, executive director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance, says there are other factors to consider.
‘What more does DPP need?’
Many of the oversize homes are being built by a small number of unscrupulous contractors who are brazenly ignoring zoning and building codes, which could lead to shoddy workmanship and unsafe buildings, Dos Santos-Tam said. They may also be creating unsafe work environments for their employees and possibly violating their labor rights.
The alliance learned that one contractor has received 15 building permits this year despite being assessed $86,000 in state occupational safety hazard fines at five different work sites for violations such as failing to provide fall protection for those working on a roof and improper electrical grounding, Dos Santos-Tam said.
The city had reported that a three-story, 32-bedroom house on the 1800 block of Houghtailing Street had no violations. They have since corrected themselves, having found that in June they issued a notice of violation on the property for several infractions, including doing work without permits — such as installation of walls and doors throughout the structure, converting two storage rooms into a bedroom and removing a bathroom.
“Please obtain a building permit for the above mentioned or restore the dwelling back to its original condition as shown” in an earlier building permit, the violation notice states.
Ozawa and several colleagues are bothered by DPP’s philosophy of working with homeowners to bring illegal structures up to code, arguing that the city does not force a builder to tear anything down but simply to correct the violation or obtain a variance.
Sokugawa said it’s not easy to get a variance, and there are instances where builders are ordered to tear down a portion of a house.
Ozawa, among the biggest critics of DPP’s handling of the situation, said he’s baffled why DPP has not been able to identify more large houses that are getting permits or the subject of complaints. He said he’s counted far more large houses just driving around his district than were on DPP’s lists. Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga has voiced similar concerns about her district.
Ozawa said his staff found online a room for rent at a property in Palolo that has 20 bedrooms. “It’s obvious it’s being used for some type of unauthorized use,” he said. “What more does DPP need to further pursue a lead like that? Constantly we’re being told, ‘We can’t make assumptions that they’re not being used for legal purposes.’”
DPP should also have initiated actions to deal with the proliferation of large houses sooner instead of waiting for Council members to offer up proposals, Ozawa said. “It’s your duty to help shape policy, not just follow aimlessly the rules whether they’re outdated or not,” he said.
Sokugawa, the acting DPP director, said determining whether a large house is legal can be complicated.
‘Nothing is simple’
Among the more common complaints is that a house is too big for its lot. Under city law a house or houses cannot take up more than half the lot.
Sokugawa said while half the lot might not seem like much, it’s often more than what the eye can visualize.
Two houses going up on Koko Drive that are expected to total 16 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms have been cited as examples of questionable building. One of the two houses is already built and towers over other homes in the community, and neighbors have already complained that they have lost their views.
While finding other violations — including the building of retaining walls without a permit — DPP officials said the sizes of the homes are allowable because in total they do not take up more than 50 percent of the lot.
Determining whether a building falls within the allowable height limit can also be tricky. The limit in a residential zone is 25 feet — unless the house is on a slope. A basement does not count toward the 25 feet, but must meet a specific definition for a basement.
When determining setbacks, driveways and roof overhangs can encroach into the required open-space area. A garage or carport cannot, unless it was put in before current codes were in place. “You have lots of older houses that were built prior to that (1986) restriction,” Sokugawa said. A special permit, or variance, for a garage or carport may also be granted “if there seems to be no other logical or reasonable place to put it,” she said.
A property owner cannot build a new house without a garage and then try to seek a variance for encroaching into the setback area for a garage, Sokugawa said. Variances are granted only if a landowner is denied reasonable use, she said.
“Nothing is simple in zoning land,” she said.
Fines often reduced
For a number of years, the city has required those seeking a building permit in a single-family residential zone to file with the state Bureau of Conveyances a restrictive covenants form declaring that the home will be used only as “a one-family detached dwelling.”
If an inspection yields a notice of violation, the property owner or contractor typically has 30 days to make the correction. If no work has been done within that time, the city will issue a notice of order imposing civil fines. An initial fee is typically between $50 and $1,000, with accruing daily fines of between $50 and $1,000.
Ozawa and other critics of DPP question the tendency of city officials to reduce significantly the initial fines that are imposed, creating no incentive for the violator to do things legally in the first place.
Sokugawa acknowledged that fines generally are reduced significantly from the initial amount, but only after the violation has been corrected. “The whole point is not to punish people or to make money (for the city); the idea is to create a built-in incentive to correct the violation quicker rather than later,” she said.
If the violation continues and fines are not paid, the city can, and has, put a lien on the property, she said. The lien can also result in the violator not being able to register a vehicle or renew their driver’s license, she said.
WHAT THE CITY LAW SAYS
When is a large-scale home in a residential-zoned neighborhood legal?
>> A residential lot cannot have a house that occupies more than 50 percent of a zoning lot, aka “lot coverage.” Lot coverage is not the same as floor area. Covered parking areas are calculated as part of the house, but not driveways. (Section 21-3.70-1, Revised Ordinances of Honolulu)
>> A dwelling on a residential lot must be set back 10 feet from the front property line (more for other uses), 5 feet from the sides and back. (Section 21-3.70-1)
>> A structure on a residential lot cannot be more than 25 feet in height, although allowances are made for sloping areas. (Section 21-3.70-1)
>> A single-family dwelling can be occupied by one family with up to three unrelated roomers/boarders or, when there is no family, up to five unrelated people. No city permits are necessary. (Section 21-5.550, Roomers, accessory)
>> A residential lot must have a minimum of two parking stalls for up to the first 2,500 square feet of living area, and then one additional stall for every additional 1,000 square feet, excluding carport or garage. (Section 21-6.30)
>> Building permits are required to construct, enlarge, alter, expand, move, remove, convert or demolish any building or structure. (Section 18-3.1)
>> Each dwelling is allowed only one kitchen, but there are no limits on the number of bedrooms, bathrooms or wet bars.
Numbers to call
If you’re concerned an illegal residential structure is in your community, you can call:
>> 768-8161 The Residential Code Enforcement Branch of the city Department of Planning and Permitting.
>> 953-7880 The Hawaii Construction Alliance’s “Monster Homes Hotline.” It promises to “follow up and get further information” if residents suspect “monster houses” are going up in their neighborhoods.