HI Good Neighbor, a group of citizens strongly opposed to the proliferation of “monster homes” — hulking detached dwellings — in residential neighborhoods, traces its grassroots start to late 2017, when members found themselves voicing concerns at a City Council meeting.
“I didn’t anticipate that there would be so many like-minded folks at the meeting, and I recall that we passed around a piece of lined paper so we could gather everyone’s name and email addresses,” said Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a member of the group, which he describes as loosely organized “folks trying to do good in the community.”
HI Good Neighbor scheduled its first meeting for Jan. 13, 2018, which coincided with the false ballistic missile alert that rattled Hawaii. “While there was certainly a lot of confusion as to whether we should meet that morning, we decided to proceed — that’s how dedicated we were to the cause!”
The group’s resolve to see Oahu effectively slay the monster home problem remains strong as the Council now weighs various crackdown proposals. An audit released last month found that in recent years the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) has been lax and inconsistent in its handling of permits and inspections tied to construction of oversized dwellings.
Born and raised in Alewa Heights, Dos Santos-Tam, 31, now lives in Kakaako and is a business consultant, helping nonprofits and companies with strategic communications, government affairs and special project work. Previously, he served as executive director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance, representing five union groups.
Also, Dos Santos-Tam was appointed to a city Neighborhood Commission seat six years ago, and has served as chairman since summer 2017.
Describing HI Good Neighbor’s core focus, he said, “Our message is simple: Our residential zones should be for residents; neighborhoods should be for neighbors; and public spaces should be for the public. We are opposed to the idea of our residential areas being overly commercialized, particularly in ways that don’t benefit the surrounding neighbors.”
Question: There are monster homes across the island, but which neighborhoods are hardest hit?
Answer: There appears to be a concentration in a handful of the older neighborhoods in urban Honolulu like Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Palolo, Liliha and Kamehameha Heights.
There are several features that monster homes tend to exhibit: a very large floor area relative to its lot or to the surrounding neighborhood; a high number of bedrooms and bathrooms, suggesting a large number of residents and a correspondingly high number of cars, parking and infrastructure impacts; a high percentage of impervious surfaces on the lot (e.g. being fully concreted corner-to-corner); and being built in a hasty manner or not-according-to-plans.
Our group has been very diligent in using data to inform our policy recommendations. We’ve been able to review reports of monster homes and evaluate their density and bedroom count against the surrounding 150-200 homes, or the other homes on the same street.
Some egregious examples stick out in our data. For example, a 25-bedroom home in Kalihi is over five times as dense as any other home on the street, and has nearly six times as many bedrooms as the median home on its street. Similarly, we’ve seen 17-bedroom homes in Kamehameha Heights and Kaimuki, which are four or five times as dense as the surrounding homes.
Q: The recent audit confirms HI Good Neighbor’s complaints about factors contributing to the monster homes problem?
A: One of the most important things we have done as a group was obtain as much data as possible from the city. … We were able to request the various databases through public records requests and one of our volunteers, who is a programmer, was able to sync them up with enough detail that a compelling picture emerged.
Our members also took matters into their own hands by driving through Kaimuki and Palolo and logging all of the addresses of monster homes under construction. By mapping this out, we were able to find patterns emerging, such as the same contractor working on many of them.
In addition, we found that the data was siloed. … The databases were not synced up, so no one could immediately tell how big an existing home was, or how a proposed home would compare contextually with its neighbors. As a result, it was difficult for the city to get a real sense of how widespread the monster home phenomenon truly was.
… In the course of our advocacy, we also found homes that were clearly in violation of city, state or internal department rules, such as the home at 2930 Date St. This structure was erected without permits, and after being issued a stop work order, was subsequently granted an after-the-fact permit.
… While all efforts should be made to correct honest mistakes, those who willfully violate rules and game the system should not be rewarded with after-the-fact permits and fines that are negotiated down or waived. It’s simply not fair to those who play by the rules.
Q: Moving forward, what needs to happen to improve DPP’s operations and efficiency?
A: The audit recommended a number of changes that have to take place internally — and I hope that they will be implemented quickly.
These include upgrading their internal management software, which was first implemented 20 years ago. The audit revealed that because of the age of the software platform, specialized queries can’t be done and certain information can’t be effectively tracked. Whatever software platform they eventually choose, it should not only be useful internally to the department, but also be able to disclose certain information to the public in an easily searchable way.
… Also, our research has revealed that many monster homes were being built by a small group of unscrupulous contractors with poor safety, licensing and labor records. Because the department preferred administrative enforcement over criminal enforcement — even in extreme cases — there was little incentive for these bad actors to change their behavior.
Simply put, the department must be more aggressive against egregious violations — whether repeat violators or those who refuse to make corrections.
Q: In May, you were named as honorary consul of Portugal. How did you get that post?
A: My grandmother always made sure that my brothers and I were proud of our part-Portuguese heritage, which led me to pursue Portuguese as my second major at Yale. (The other undergrad major: political science.) I’m also the president of the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce here on Oahu.
Last year, the Portuguese consul general from San Francisco came to Hawaii to find a successor to Dr. John Henry Felix, who had been the consul for 45 years and continues to be a mentor to this day. … I was nominated and approved by the Portuguese government.
In this role, I help Portuguese citizens in Hawaii with issues they may face with the Portuguese government; support the efforts of the many local Portuguese associations to maintain our culture and heritage; and find ways to promote trade and cultural exchanges between Hawaii and Portugal.
Q: You have been involved with political groups such as Young Democrats of America. Also, you were a candidate for a City Council seat in 2018. What prompted your interest in politics?
A: I’ve always felt that politics is a good way to make a difference in your community, get to know like-minded folks, and improve people’s lives. Although I wasn’t successful in running in 2018, along the way I met lots of interesting people, got to know my community very well, and saw a wide range of issues first-hand. Some issues seemed easy to fix, some seemed intractable, but all of them will take leadership and neighbors coming together in order to solve.
Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in getting involved with community issues?
A: First, find a few good mentors and meet with them on a regular basis, not just to seek advice but also to observe how they operate: How do they treat other people? What do they do to enrich their community? How can you follow their path while still being yourself?
Second, take a deep dive on a few issues that you care about and learn as much as you can about them. Become as much of an expert as you can about those issues, so that others will listen to you and value your input.