Kathleen Wong is a Honolulu-based writer. She has written for publications including Broadly, Mic, Mashable, and Refinery29.
Critics say the massive homes are code-dodging rentals. Others say space for extended-family home-share is necessary to manage the high home prices in Hawaii.
Oahu’s neighborhoods are known for their plantation-style houses, most of which date back to the early 20th century. Hawaii’s year-round tropical climate and its rich, unique history birthed this characteristic “old Hawaii” architecture, featuring wrap-around lanais and wide-hipped or swooping bell-cast roofs. But for the past few years, residents of Oahu, the island that is home to the state capital, Honolulu, have been gawking at a different style home: Proliferating like an invasive species of insects, large, boxy structures that max out property lines have been popping up in neighborhoods like Kalihi, Manoa, and Kaimuki.
Officially known as “large-detached dwellings,” these “monster” homes are built on residential properties with single-family dwelling permits, yet they have numerous bedrooms and bathrooms. Kathy Sokugawa, acting director for the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) considers eight bedrooms a minimum for a single-family home to qualify as a “monster” home—one in Kalihi reportedly has 29 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms. According to Sokugawa, they are believed to serve as illegal short- and long-term rentals, including illegal vacation rentals. The “monster” homes are upsetting some of the people in Oahu communities and the city is struggling to find a solution.
Under current law, these homes are legal as long as the house doesn’t cover more than half of the land and everyone living in the home is related. “Existing ordinances have been extended to their maximum limits and applications for these types of structures that build to the limits of setback requirements and height restrictions are routinely being submitted,” City Council member Trevor Ozawa said. “These applications are being approved because we don’t regulate the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and wet bars.”
Critics say these homes serve as illegal short- and long-term rentals. According to Ozawa, owners and developers make a large profit renting out the units. In 2017, KITV4 reported that city records show that most “monster” homes are built by foreign entities from China.
“I’ve been a builder here for over 20 years and I’ve never had anyone approach me about designing or building one of these types of homes,” said Marshall Hickox, president of Homeworks Construction on Oahu and president-elect for the Building Industry Association of Hawaii (BIA), a nonprofit that touts itself as the voice of the local construction industry.
Oahu suffers from a lack of affordable housing. A local contractor, Jimmy Wu of local building firm Prowork Pacific, spoke out against a bill to restrict these homes at a meeting of the Land and Zoning committee of the Honolulu City Council in November 2017. Wu said that immigrant families of limited income pool their money to afford a home and then live together in a multigenerational home. “This is something that we cannot avoid because today if one single family … saved to afford a $800,000 to $900,000 teardown-condition house and spent another $500,000 to build a new house and support by [themselves], that’s unrealistic,” Wu said, adding that it was difficult for one family to afford a home and that his cousin, brother, and sister put money together to build together and live in one place.
The BIA finds that about 11 percent of Hawaii’s homes are multigenerational due to housing costs and cultural traditions of caring for your elders, but some argue that there are apartment-intended “monster” homes that are a totally different beast from legitimate multigenerational homes for families.
“People used to build what they needed,” Ozawa said. “Now we see investors building structures in residential neighborhoods to make money.”
Opponents claim the added density costs the neighborhood; that it puts stress on infrastructure like the sewage system. Local residents complain of constant construction noise, excessive trash, parking issues, blocked views, and rising assessment values that affect their own property taxes. At the November 2017 Land and Zoning committee meeting, a Palolo Valley resident called the addition of one of these large homes to her neighborhood a “nightmare.” “Monster homes have changed the character of our residential districts,” Ozawa said.
However, most of these effects are “largely anecdotal,” according to Sokugawa. “We have not yet conducted a full-blown investigation [of the effects] once the homes are completed.”
Over the past year the city has passed laws that created a stricter building code, and it has instituted harsh penalties for those who work without permit: a civil fine 10 times the amount of the permit fee or $10,000—whichever is more—for each day of the violation. Perhaps the most aggressive attempt at stopping these homes is the two-year restrictive ordinance, Bill 110, CD2, FD1, that was signed into law by Mayor Kirk Caldwell in March 2018. The law is effectively a moratorium on these types of homes, setting bathroom and wet bar limitations and prohibiting the construction of any house that wants to occupy more than 70 percent of the land plot. Since the moratorium, the number of building permit applications for these large homes went from 57 in 2017 to eight between January and June of 2018.
But some people believe this kind of regulation will actually do more harm than good for those trying to build “normal” homes. “Restricting the size of the home will negatively impact families who need to build a larger home to fit their household needs,” Gladys Marrone, CEO of the BIA said. “Restricting the size of a home does not prevent a ‘monster’ home.”
For instance, those with smaller parcels of land might be unable to increase the size of their house. If someone wants to add a guest unit to their home, she might have to add two more parking spaces, which can double renovation costs depending on the lot size.
Local contractors have noticed the new regulations causing delays of up to nine months in getting permits for what they consider normal renovations. To fight back, on October 18, the BIA held a rally in front of Honolulu Hale—the official government seat of the city—asking City Council members to support Bill 64, which expedited the process for building permits for one or two-family dwellings. It passed in early November.
On the horizon is coming up with a plan for when the moratorium ends. According to Ozawa, the City Council is working on Bill 80, which he says will amend current Land Use Ordinance to better development standards for large homes. Similar to the moratorium, the bill seeks “to preserve the intent of Residential Districts and protect the character of existing neighborhoods” through regulating currently unregulated large detached dwelling elements: bedrooms (as an application can show a closet, but in actuality, it’s converted into a bedroom), wet bars, laundry rooms, and bathrooms. Bill 80 will also require yards “for light and air access.”
“Time is the challenge,” Ozawa said. “Amending the LUO is a lengthy process and we are now just getting the bill back from the DPP and the Planning Commission.”
Instead of continuing to come up with new “band-aid blanket revisions that don’t take into account all sorts of anomalies,” Hickox says he would prefer existing laws be better enforced: “Nothing needs to happen other than you need to put in a better system of enforcement. What’s the use of passing laws if there’s no way to enforce them?”
According to the DPP, limited resources and a competitive job market have made it difficult for the agency to hire and also keep employees. “There's a huge chasm between what we're paying them and the responsibility we're giving them,” Sokugawa said, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
It seems like the road to finding a solution that makes everyone happy is going to be a long one. “Yes, they [the very large homes] clearly look different, and they may be occupied in a different way, legally or illegally,” Sokugawa said. “But is there any legitimate reason for them? Clearly some landowners see value in them. Balance can only be achieved if we know what the underlying opposition is and whether this opposition is based on facts or not.”