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City department considering new ways to crack down on Oahu’s ‘monster homes’

The city Department of Planning and Permitting is looking into different ways to better enforce against “monster homes,” new large structures in older neighborhoods that often illegally rent out rooms for both short- and long-term rentals.

One of the ways the department is looking to do that is to have the City Council pass a new ordinance that would allow DPP to foreclose on a property once a lien has been filed against it administratively instead of going through a court process.

Putting a lien on a property and then seeking foreclosure is one of the last steps the department takes against landowners who do not comply with the law.

“That whole process kind of gets bogged down because of lack of staff and resources both at our department and (corporation) counsel,” said DPP Director Dean Uchida.

“That finishing step has been difficult to take with the city.”

DPP is complaint-driven, which means it investigates properties if the community reports problems with it. However, building a case against a monster home proves to be challenging for the department because the inspector needs the renters in the property to cooperate.

“The difficulty is getting the renters to cooperate with us to show that they have rental agreements,” Uchida said.

“But some of these people have already been given a storyline to tell us when our inspectors go out there and visit.”

He explained that renters will tell inspectors that they are related to the property owner and not renting a room in the home.

If there is found to be a violation, an inspector will sign a notice of violation that gets sent to the property owner. The violation will also express some amount of discretionary fine but allow the property owner time to fix the violation before the daily fines begin to accumulate.

If the violation is still not fixed, the department will issue an order, signed by the DPP director, notifying the owner that fines are accumulating.

“The best practice was if they got compliance, there was an automatic … reduction in the fine just for compliance,” Uchida said.

However, now the fines are being applied 100% unless a DPP investigator can provide the department with compelling facts to demonstrate why the fines should be reduced.

The last steps that the department takes if the violation is not corrected and the fines are not paid are to put a lien on the property and then pursue foreclosure, which Uchida said is difficult for the department to win.

“The struggle we’re dealing with, I’m dealing with right now, is how do we actively enforce when we don’t really have police powers,” he said.

“We can’t just walk in the door and arrest people, right? It’s a civil matter.”

Uchida was hopeful that a city ordinance that limits the size of residential homes would help with the monster home problem.

Both Council Chairman Tommy Waters and Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina supported creating a fund that would reinvest the fines collected by DPP over illegal short-term rentals and monster homes into the department’s enforcement unit. Currently, the collected fines go into the city’s general fund.

Uchida supported the idea, explaining that it would also be a morale booster for employees.

“If they see something to the end and they get justice at the end and the city gets a payment, people feel good about this,” he said.

“Leaving things hanging up in the air and not being able to close out on things — I think that’s what’s causing a lot of frustration right now.”

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