Factory-built housing raises concerns: Council committee advances 197-page construction code revamp

Create more affordable housing, or protect carpenters’ jobs?

That’s a balance a County Council panel tried to reach Tuesday before advancing the framework for a revamped construction code folding in building, plumbing, electrical and energy components. The council Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit sent Bill 179 on an 8-1 vote to two more hearings by the council.

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With the code consolidation comes a streamlining of the permit application and plan review process by consolidating what are currently separate permits from the existing codes into a single permit. Those in the construction industry have long decried what they see as a slow, overly cumbersome, bureaucratic and arbitrary permit process.

Permits have definitely been moving out of the department more quickly now that the county has added more plan reviewers, said acting Deputy Building Chief Neal Tanaka. What was a 31-day average for Hilo and 24-day average for Kona to get plans approved is now averaging eight days for Hilo and seven days for Kona, he said.

At issue for the committee and most of the two dozen testifiers was an appendix to the 197-page document regulating factory-built housing. Factory-built housing has been in the building code since 2012 with few, if any, such homes being constructed.

But carpenters and their unions raised concerns that allowing it in the code could lead to a proliferation of substandard housing, in the process jeopardizing jobs and the economy. Carpenters are well-trained and make good middle-class wages, while factory-built homes use automation that requires fewer workers who make less, they said.

“A robust construction industry relies on all builders being treated fairly and equally. All builders of housing should follow the same format of construction oversight, licensing and inspections to assure a quality product for consumers,” said Max Newberg, Kona field representative for the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters. “The construction industry plays a vital role in stimulating the local economy and improving the existing quality of life for the county’s residents.”

Dean Au, also a field representative for the Regional Council of Carpenters, said a recent home build required three to four carpenters for four to five months. The union advocates livable wages, he said, which is enough for wage-earners to support themselves and their families on a single income.

“In this COVID pandemic, now is not the time to take away those jobs,” he said. “Those are the jobs that are going to be replaced with factory-built housing.”

Factory-built housing is being championed by HPM Building Supply, an almost 100-year-old company that has long provided package homes and prefabricated walls and trusses. Also supporting the concept were Mayor Harry Kim’s executive assistant in charge of homelessness Sharon Hirota and Patrick Hurney, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Hawaii Island.

Hurney said his nonprofit could provide twice as many homes if factory-built housing was available. He said the island is short some 20,000 houses, and 20% of island residents spend half of their income on housing.

“This could be a game changer for affordable housing in the short term,” Hurney said. “We need different opportunities and options for families to have shelter.”

The code also creates regulations for tiny homes and housing built using indigenous architecture and materials.

“Those are all avenues and tools that people can use to ensure that people can have housing,” said Tanaka. “Nobody’s being forced to take that opportunity.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who’s married to a carpenter, was the sole no vote. She said she’d be bringing an amendment forward to remove the appendix.

“There’s unintended consequences, long-term unintended consequences,” Poindexter said. “It extends beyond affordability to the long-term economic effect that it will have on our jobs. … It’s not all about affordability.”

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz resisted comments from some testifiers that special interests had too big a say in the end result. She noted that various stakeholders have been involved in helping craft the bill over some months. Kierkiewicz didn’t see a problem adding factory-built housing.

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”You’ve got to have all the options on the table. … I like the fact that there are now different options for the people to leverage,” she said. “Lets put it on the table and let the market decide.”

(Disclosure: Nancy Cook Lauer’s spouse is a part-time employee at Hilo Habitat for Humanity ReStore.)

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