My Turn: Factory-built homes expand affordable housing options

At the Hawaii County Council Committee on Public Works meeting on Tuesday, I was surprised to see so much attention on Bill 179 Appendix L — Factory-Built Housing, which has been a part of Hawaii County’s building code since 2012.

The building code is written for the benefit of our community. Appendix L is not a new addition, nor is it intended to favor specific companies or methods of construction. It exists to create a level playing field around the rules and process for factory-built housing. More importantly, it ensures our community’s safety is protected by requiring that anything “factory-built” adheres to building code requirements, uses licensed contractors, and is subject to the construction inspection process required by our county. Factory-built units exist all around us today as tiny homes, homes on wheels, government offices, commercial structures, and other facilities constructed mostly with modules imported from around the world. Implementation of Bill 179 with Appendix L would ensure that consistent safety and quality standards are required for all factory-built units installed within the county.

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii was already facing a housing shortage and an affordable housing crisis. According to the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Hawaii needs approximately 50,000 more housing units by 2025. Where units are available, median home prices are through the roof, ranging from $400,000 to $850,000 across all islands. Lack of affordable housing is a fundamental obstacle that holds back Hawaii residents from financial stability and a good quality of life. And in our own backyard, the situation is especially dire. According to Aloha United Way’s ALICE report, 48% of Hawaii County’s households are below the ALICE poverty threshold, the highest percentage of any county in the state. Bottom line, we need solutions that reduce homelessness and help keep our local families here in Hawaii.

As a 99-year-old local company that’s 100% employee-owned, HPM is constantly evolving and finding new ways to support our community. We are intent on being part of the solution and offering affordable housing options for Hawaii. The genesis of HPM’s HalePlus factory-built option came out of our efforts to provide temporary shelters for those displaced by the 2018 eruption in Puna — at that time, no other solutions existed or were readily implementable. Our goal with HalePlus is to expand the pie, not take away pieces of the pie from others. There is a huge underserved market on Hawaii Island, including numerous multi-generational households, and this market is not able to afford a new home. We want to make possible what is not possible today in helping these families achieve the dream of home ownership.

There is a concern voiced by some leaders of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters that Bill 179 Appendix L will take away union jobs. We have many friends and loyal customers that are members of the Carpenters Union and we appreciate all that they do. Appendix L has been part of our building code since 2012, and I am not aware of any union jobs lost directly because of this over the last eight years.

HPM’s intention is that increased home construction using affordable factory-built housing will support many construction jobs in the county — not only carpenters, but also licensed contractors, plumbers, electricians, and multiple professional trades involved in a factory-built project. Affordable, factory-built housing offers the potential for new homes to be built even as our community recovers from the economic devastation of COVID-19. On Hawaii Island, the vast majority of single-family residential homes are not currently built by union carpenters.

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Let’s not limit our options as a community. Now is the time where we need to come together and offer solutions. As one of our council members stated, “let’s put it on the table and let the market decide.”

Jason Fujimoto is the president and CEO, and fifth-generation leader, of HPM Building Supply.