My Turn: Factory-built housing exploits building code loophole

Two of the most challenging socioeconomic issues our community faces are the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. These are the same two reasons why our residents leave the state. Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP) remains steadfast in its support for policies that incentivize the construction of more affordable housing units and create jobs that pay a “living wage” to enhance the quality of life for all residents of Hawaii.

“Appendix L” of Bill 179 relating to factory-built housing (FBH) has been the topic of much discussion during meetings at the County Council. FBH is built within a factory using automated tools and a smaller labor force than on-site construction. Appendix L has received additional scrutiny during County Council meetings because it allows the FBH homebuilder to bypass standard permitting and inspection requirements during the manufacturing process that must be complied with for any other building or structure. Two important questions should be asked: Why is the building code currently written to provide special policies for FBH? And aren’t the standard requirements important to ensure the quality and safety of the home?

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HPM Building Supply has positioned itself to build FBH and worked closely with the County of Hawaii Building Division for the last two years to develop and implement policies that will fast-track FBH. While they were developing Bill 179 and FBH policies, members of the public were left in the dark on how the bill came together. When the Department of Public Works released Bill 179, the public was only given seven days, in the middle of a pandemic, to comment on an earlier version of Bill 179 — an unreasonable amount of time for anyone to digest such a lengthy and complex bill consisting of 197 pages. Makes us wonder whether this whole process was shibai?

Some are saying that special policies found in Appendix L are needed to build more affordable housing quickly. We support the construction of more affordable housing and believe that government can make it more feasible for the traditional homebuilder to accomplish this with the proper county incentives. However, we should not support policies that enable FBH to take advantage of existing loopholes in the building code to gain a competitive advantage over traditional homebuilders, especially at the expense of the life and safety of the public who will reside in these homes. As written, Appendix L opens the door for substandard FBH to be manufactured locally and abroad, and this should not be considered an acceptable affordable housing option for our residents.

Bill 179 will not just have a negative impact on the construction industry, but the island’s economy as we face a major economic downturn and unemployment at record highs. The automated process of FBH will take away jobs from traditional homebuilders; good-paying jobs that are keeping local carpenters, plumbers and electricians employed.

The Big Island is already at risk of losing an estimated 200 jobs due to the elimination of the Honua Ola project; Hawaiian Airlines announced an estimated 2,000 layoffs statewide; and businesses are closing left and right when unemployment is at a record high. There is also still tremendous uncertainty when tourism will be able to fully employ its workforce on the island. This is not the time to be eliminating jobs.

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Our construction industry has been fortunate to continue working during the pandemic, but we will not be immune to the impacts from the faltering economy. Virtually every industry, every person has been or will be impacted by the long-term economic effects of the pandemic. We shouldn’t be working to eliminate good-paying middle-class jobs when so many in our community are out-of-work. Let’s work towards stimulating our economy through good paying middle-class jobs, affordable housing done right, and programs and policies that enhance the quality of life for our residents.

Christopher Delaunay is Pacific Resource Partnership’s government relations manager.