SECOND OF 2 PARTS
While they’re getting a ramped-up number of complaints from Oahu residents about the large-scale houses that are creeping into their neighborhoods, Honolulu City Council members are learning that existing zoning and building laws allow for much more than people think.
Council members are grappling with how to curtail the proliferation of monster houses, but at a time when Oahu is facing a serious shortage of housing inventory, some are cautioning the Council to watch its step.
John Whalen, who headed the former city Department of Land Utilization under the late Mayor Frank Fasi, said the city needs to weigh both sides of the equation. “They have to find that right balance of allowing more housing but with the appropriate infrastructure to handle it,” Whalen said.
The issue of big houses has been around for years, Whalen said. In the 1980s age of excess, high-end “McMansions” were the rage in more affluent communities, he said.
It’s a more pronounced issue now because not only are many more larger homes being built, they’re showing up in older neighborhoods and taxing the infrastructure. “Some of the streets in these older neighborhoods don’t really have space for parking,” he said.
Sue Ann Lee, president of the Hawaii Board of Realtors, also said the situation is caused in part by the city’s housing crunch. “It’s very difficult — without sufficient housing, you’re going to find that.”
The Council Zoning and Planning Committee has advanced Resolution 17-276, which instructs the Department of Planning and Permitting to craft a bill that would put limits on what can be built on a single-family lot as well as increase parking requirements on larger residential properties. The latest version also requires builders to obtain a conditional use permit from the Council for homes beyond a certain, yet to be determined, size.
Existing city land use laws say only that a structure’s “coverage area” in residential zones be no bigger than half the lot size. As a result, a good portion of larger homes — some as high as three stories — are meeting the letter of the law in terms of house size.
And while each dwelling unit may have only one kitchen, there are no written limits on the number of bedrooms, bathrooms or wet bars. The resolution, as first introduced by Councilman Trevor Ozawa, called for a limit on the number of bedrooms and wet bars for single-family dwellings. But DPP Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa convinced the committee that limiting floor area would be a better move.
“It’s simpler to enforce, both before you come in for a permit as well as after you complete construction,” Sokugawa said. She suggested the Council should look at regulating based on floor-to-area ratio, also known as density. “So you can still have a big house, but gotta be a big lot,” she said. Establishing graduated setbacks based on house size can also be considered, she said.
In arguing against a strict limit on bedrooms and wet bars, Sokugawa said capping the number of wet bars could result in the unintended consequence of eliminating laundry rooms from some houses.
Stricter parking rules
As for parking, the current requirement is that a minimum of two on-site parking stalls must be provided for the first 2,500 square feet of living area and then one additional stall for every 1,000 square feet above the first 2,500. The resolution calls for the bill to require an additional parking stall for every 500 square feet after the first 2,500.
“If you want to put up 28 bedrooms on Houghtailing in an area where there’s no parking to begin with, you will need to have parking,” Ozawa said. Such a requirement by itself could eliminate many larger houses, he said.
Whalen said that the parking requirement in place now was instituted in the 1980s.
As for the proposal to limit the area of single-family homes based on floor-to-area ratio, in much the same way condominiums and apartments are regulated, similar legislation in the 1980s failed, Whalen said. But it should be looked at again given the current climate, he said.
In the draft that advanced out of committee earlier this month, Council Zoning Chairwoman Kymberly Pine included language sought by Ozawa that would require builders of larger houses to obtain conditional use permits from the Council.
“It is clear that when you know something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it really is a duck,” Ozawa said. “And if it’s not a duck, they come in and prove us wrong. … We’re just telling you to come in and tell us what you’re doing before you go ahead and create chaos in the neighborhoods, which has been going on over the last year or two.”
Ozawa scoffed at the argument that tightening the rules on illegal large-scale houses would eliminate needed housing stock. “This is not the way to solve the housing crisis,” he said. “This is not smart development. It’s not well planned. Most of these are being planned haphazardly with complete disregard for infrastructure needs.”
Lee, from the Board of Realtors, said the city should also consider requiring inspectors to go into larger homes a year after construction is done and every two years thereafter to ensure they are in compliance. “Severe sanctions may discourage the illegal buildings and rentals,” she said.
That would require more residential building enforcement inspectors, the same people responsible for looking into complaints about illegal bed-and-breakfast and other vacation units. Sokugawa said DPP currently has about 12 dedicated for that purpose, and that number hasn’t increased or decreased in a number of years. Meanwhile, the inspectors have been given added responsibilities such as the stricter federal water pollution requirements that were instituted recently.
Council members appear willing to consider more inspector positions.
Two years ago, with the advent of the city’s accessory dwelling units program and concerns they would be converted to vacation rentals, the Council approved additional funding to hire five or six more inspectors on a temporary basis. Funding was not continued, however.
Sokugawa said additional inspectors would help net more citations for illegal uses, but also noted that from a financial standpoint, the cost of hiring additional people might not be justified by the number of additional citations issued.
Sokugawa said more funding for DPP to be able to upgrade its software capabilities and other technical tools would help with enforcement capabilities.
Some in the community question the need for any new regulations against larger houses.
Ming Hui Chen, at this month’s Council Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, said he doubts there have been large numbers of houses with 20 or more bedrooms being constructed lately. While he agrees some property owners have ill intent, the solution is for the Department of Planning and Permitting to increase enforcement of existing laws rather than enacting new laws that could have unintended consequences, he said.
“It isn’t worth a resolution to change DPP regulations,” Chen said.
He bought a three-bedroom house last year with a living area of 1,200 square feet on a 6,000-square-foot parcel. This “barely fits” his family, consisting of himself, his wife and two children. Eventually, he’d like separate rooms for himself and his children, and also move his parents in. He’d also like space to house visiting family or friends. To do that, he will either need to build an extension or replace the existing house entirely, he said.
He’s not looking at a 20-bedroom home, “maybe 10 at the most,” he said.
Ningyin Miao told committee members there needs to be a separation between homes used for residential and apartment uses. A structure with 20 or 30 bedrooms “is on the extreme side,” Miao said.
Other larger houses now being questioned are for residential use, she said. “The core problem with those large residential houses is because Honolulu housing prices (are) very expensive.”
Miao said the larger houses are paying higher property taxes because building size is factored into the equation. “I think the bottom line is enforcement of the current law” limiting the number of nonrelatives who can live on a residential property, she said. That law requires property owners to house no more than five unrelated individuals on a property, and no more than three if the property owner’s own family lives there, she said.
Adding more restrictions will extend the already lengthy amount of time required to obtain a building permit when there is currently a housing crunch, she said. Miao estimated that, based on DPP information given to the Council, there may be 30 or 40 homes that are beyond eight or more bedrooms, and she questioned the need to overhaul the permitting process to address “a relatively small percentage.”
Others, however, said more restrictions are required.
Palolo resident Reyna Sueoka told committee members that workers on the large house on the property next to hers committed violations during construction and that, since it was completed, a rental house and limousine service have been operating illegally out of it.
On Nov. 17, DPP issued two citations to property owner Tanya Tiet for housing four unrelated people in an ohana dwelling, housing six unrelated people in the principal dwelling, and operating a business illegally at 1746 9th Ave.
Phone messages left by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for Tiet and her husband, Brandon, owners of Dukes Limousine, were not returned.
Kaimuki resident Sarah Chinen said she understands how some homeowners might need larger houses for larger families. “But I question how many families they have because many times they apply for permits for different lots.”
There should be severe consequences when homebuilders lie on their building permit applications, Chinen said. “Rather than just serve them with fines which they can easily pay, condemn the house or knock the monsters down.”
She urged the committee to pass Bill 94, introduced by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, which would impose a moratorium on larger houses until DPP can come up with language for a permanent proposal to curtail their numbers. That measure, however, was deferred by the committee.