Hawaii Governor Declares Affordable Housing Emergency

Are there lessons here to consider for Washington?

In a bold, somewhat surprising move – the Governor of Hawaii is pushing for the immediate construction of 50,000 new homes over the next three to five years for residents of all income levels. Under an executive order, Gov. Josh Green has suspended state and county laws, primarily focusing on land use, historic preservation and environmental review.

Titled “Emergency Proclamation Relating to Housing,” the measure invokes a state law giving the governor broad power to suspend laws that impede a response to emergencies such as natural disasters or the coronavirus pandemic. The move is seen as a drastic response to what the governor has framed as an existential threat to the island state, which has seen an outmigration that averaged 20 people per day last year as residents unable to afford the high cost of living fled to the mainland.

“We don’t have enough houses for our people. It’s really that simple.”

“Let me break it down for you,” Green said at a press conference in his briefing room, where he signed the order.

Citing a shortage of first responders, teachers and health care workers needed to serve the community, Green said, “If it’s not a crisis, if it’s not an emergency, I don’t know what is.”  In this case, the emergency is a shortage of housing and the response is to lower regulatory barriers to building homes.

The laws suspended include provisions related to historic preservation, county zoning and the state Land Use Commission, which functions as a state-level zoning authority. The order also suspends Hawaii’s environmental review law, which requires in-depth environmental impact statements for projects determined to have a significant impact on natural and cultural resources.

The fast-tracked environmental review process will largely be conducted by the working group and housing officer.

A number of environmental groups have challenged the move as being Overreaching and ignoring decades of protections.

Asked to respond to such critics who viewed the emergency proclamation as alarming, Green said, “It is alarming. The alarm is we can’t find housing for our children. That is the actual alarm.

Among other things, the measure alters Oahu’s zoning laws to allow downtown office buildings to be converted into residences. It also removes the need for city or county council approval for projects developed under the state’s 201H statute, which is meant to fast-track the development of affordable housing by removing numerous land use restrictions.