Permitting Delays Aggravate Housing Crisis, Show Lack Of Respect For Hawaii Residents

by Keli‘i Akina

City officials in John’s Creek, Georgia, recently revamped their government services to be more responsive to local residents. Joe Kent, one of my colleagues at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, just returned from a visit to that northeastern Atlanta suburb of about 82,000 people and was astounded to watch a man apply for and receive a building permit in a single day.

Contrast that with Hawaii, where permit applicants must navigate a complicated bureaucracy, deal with administrative delays, spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to meet requirements and wait months for something as simple as a permit to upgrade the kitchen.

As of August, the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting had about 8,000 projects waiting for approvals. Obtaining a residential permit on Oahu currently takes more than seven months on average — twice as long as it did in 2017.

Powerful influence can’t even break through the permitting logjam. Honolulu Civil Beat journalist Christina Jedra reported last month that former Mayor Kirk Caldwell was still waiting to receive approval for a plan he submitted a year ago, in October 2021, to renovate his kitchen. Hawaii residents are a patient and forgiving group, but the permit backlog is testing our forbearance. Not only does it reflect an unnecessary level of bureaucracy, it contributes to the slow growth and high cost of housing in our state.

Whether you’re trying to build new homes or improve an existing property, indefinite delays and unexpected expenses are never a good thing.

Hawaii’s policymakers are aware of the problem: Throughout the islands, county council members hear about it in public meetings. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi made campaign promises about streamlining the permitting department.

In the past, solutions have focused on filling more positions or giving permitting officials more equipment. Unfortunately, these attempts to improve the system have shown that making the bureaucracy slightly more efficient isn’t the answer.

Instead, we must simplify the permitting process as a whole. Get rid of permits where they are unnecessary. Create a path for expedited review of projects that meet certain standards. Bring in private companies to help review complex permits and clear the backlogs.

The good news is that some progress is being made toward streamlining the process. Earlier this month, the Honolulu County Council eliminated the requirement that permits from homebuilders be notarized, saving time and money. In addition, a bill introduced this week would allow permits to be approved if they have been stamped by a licensed architect.

Also this month, the Grassroot Institute testified in favor of Bill 56, which would remove the requirement that homeowners obtain a permit for certain repairs or renovations costing more than $5,000. In other words, people who just want to replace their outdoor decks or redo their kitchens, like former Mayor Caldwell, wouldn’t be stuck waiting a year for a permit; they could just go ahead and make those changes.

County officials on Hawaii island also are looking at ways to address permitting delays. In testimony before the Hawaii County Cost of Government Commission, the Grassroot Institute suggested following the lead of John’s Creek by hiring a private company to clear the backlog and deal with complex permit approvals. Not only would it be more efficient, it would conserve county resources and take pressure off the permitting departments.

The current situation is disrespectful of everyone’s time, money and property rights. Simplifying the permitting process would help clear the path for more housing and make it easier for people who already own homes to make simple repairs or upgrades.

KELI‘I AKINA is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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