Policy for the People in Hawaii: In Conversation with Mayor Mitch Roth

We’re excited to launch a new web-series, Resilient Housing Across the Americas, a series of conversations with housing leaders across industries, countries and interests. In the first installment of this series, filmed during hte Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado, we’re in conversation with Mitch Roth, Mayor of Hawaii County, Hawaii about how policies and building codes need to work for the people they serve.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Hausler (EH): So we’re here at the Cities Summit of the Americas launching Build Change’s Resilient Housing across the Americas webinar series with the mayor of Hawaii County, Mayor Mitch Roth. So thank you so much, Mayor Roth, for coming and joining our conversation.

Mayor Mitch Roth (MR): Our pleasure.

Hawaii has some of the most difficult permitting and housing laws in the country. And, you know, it doesn’t just go to what’s in the house, it goes to land use. It goes to, you know, culture, goes to water.

On my island, you know, our island is the size of Connecticut. And on one side we have rain, the other side we have the dry side. A lot of people want to go to the dry side. One of the problems on the dry side is a lack of available water that we can go to. So one of the things that we are looking at now with the Governor of the State of Hawaii and all the mayors, we’re looking at a housing emergency proclamation and that emergency proclamation may loosen up certain restrictions that we have.

We, at the current time, have a homeless emergency proclamation that is out there. And what that does is, again, that allows us to look at different ideas. And I think, you know, you need to sometimes take off some of the rules that you have. I often say that we’ve seen the enemy and the enemy is us.

And so where, in other places, it may take a week or two to get a permit. It may take you…when it first started, it took about 8 to 12 months to get a permit.

We’ve been working on our system and working on computer systems that help, you know, mom and pops or, you know, that young couple build a house. That’s also important because it’s not only large developments where you’re going to have affordable housing, but it’s also, you know, the young teacher or the police officer or those other people that are building in their community.

And so whatever the government can do to work with them to make it a little bit easier to get through the system, I think that’s, you know, really important. You know, if you have too many rules, oftentimes what we found is if you have rules out there that people forget why the rules were set up in the first place. And so you also have to go back and say, okay, why is this here? Is this still applicable today as to when it was first put in? 

In Hawaii, you know, we have the International Building Code, for example. And, you know, the International Building Code is great, but sometimes it doesn’t fit. For example, you don’t have to worry about snow loads in Hawaii…or other things. 

One of the things that we’re looking at in our emergency proclamation is under the, I think it’s the International 2018 Building Code and wind speeds. You know, we want our houses to be safe. If it’s over 130 miles an hour, the building code requires you have an engineer sign off on the wind speeds. Well, right now, it takes about 6 to 8 months just to get an engineer who’s willing to look at, you know, what the architect has. And a lot of times, they have systems online  where they can check those wind speeds. So, if it’s at 132, maybe you don’t have to have a structural engineer put his stamp on there. As long as the architect is signing off and using, you know, qualified wind speeds, we want the houses to be safe. And, you know, what we’re finding is oftentimes there’s no changes made in the plans. 

EH: This is so interesting because it’s exactly parallel to our work in Colombia, where it’s been the same issue. The permitting process and the regulatory environment is so onerous and so difficult and so prohibitive for upgrading an existing house. There’s a government subsidy out there to do it. But homeowners weren’t taking advantage of it because there were so many steps in the process. So making the process easier is essential here. 

I agree with you  about building codes. They’re necessary, but they can sometimes be too conservative and they paralyze folks and no action is taken. 

MR: Well, what we found is that sometimes it even works against you because people will build anyhow. And they will build without a permit. And, you know, the governments don’t have enough resources to go out and necessarily know that a house has been built outside of code. I mean, we often catch up several years later and maybe several owners later. And, you know, that’s also a problem. 

Also, what happens is, you know, people need housing. People aren’t going to move. And so  we’ve seen people living in blue tarp tents, which really isn’t a very good situation either. So we need to look at it with a mind of how do we solve this problem, how do we work together but do so where, you know, it’s not paralyzing people. 

EH: How is technology involved? Are you using AI to maybe move through  that engineering evaluation a little bit more quickly? Or are you using technology platforms to facilitate anything? 

MR: Not yet. But part of the idea is to hopefully get there. And, you know, we’re seeing a lot of new technology, you’re working with a code and, you know, you’re working with human beings who haven’t seen this. And so, because they haven’t seen it, it may be the greatest idea on Earth. But I call it the Dr. Phil question. And the Dr. Phil question is, is this how’s that working for you? And if it’s not working for you, then you need to make a change. 

We know that some of the  new technology is a lot cheaper. And it’s engineering sound. And it may be tested someplace else, but it hasn’t been tested locally. That’s a problem. We need to get over some of those things as well. 

EH: The local testing and the buy-in by the homeowner or the home occupant is so critical because if you bring in a new technology and no one wants to live there or it’s not appropriate for the climate or culture or it doesn’t work in the local supply chain… 

MR: Well, the owner is one part, but the buy-in by the government is another. And, you know, like I said, oftentimes it’s the people who are in these positions. They know what they like. They know what they’ve approved before. And if they have new things, it just paralyzes them as well. And so we need to change on the government side as well. 

EH: I so appreciate your  leadership. I am so excited to help spread the story of what you’ve done  with some of our international programs. It’s striking really, the parallels between two completely different parts of the world.  Bogota and Hawaii County. But the challenges are the same, the solutions are there. Yeah, It’s really impressive. Congratulations. 

If you have too many rules…people forget why the rules were set up in the first place. And so you also have to go back and say, okay, why is this here? Is this still applicable today as to when it was first put in?

Learn more about Hawaii County’s housing related programs at the Office of Housing and Community Development and about Mayor Roth’s plan for affordable housing. 

Want to strengthen your country's housing stock?

Read the Build Change Guide to Resilient Housing or email us at advocacy@buildchange.org to begin your journey.