Sep 17, 2013

Is Honolulu Captured by Regulation?

Why do we have so many regulatory barriers in Hawaii?
  • Is it our Building and Zoning Codes? 
    • But we use the same International Building Code as many other cities.
  • Is it the need to protect our limited resources, ie. the land?
    •  We are not unique in this aspect either.
    •  If this was a real priority, then one might expect more vigorously defined urban growth boundaries. However, issues such as defining important agriculture lands at the state level, have still not been addressed. 
This suggests that a process such as regulatory capture is occurring in Honolulu. Perhaps this explains  the prevalence of stories about the necessity of connections and back-room deals to get even the simplest project completed.

If Regulatory Capture is the issue, then the high level of regulatory barriers and high cost of living (#1 in the nation) relative to income, make Hawaii a unique place to study this phenomenon.

As we look to removing the barriers to affordable housing, the issue then becomes deeper than allocating (dwindling) funding. It suggests a shift is needed in the way we regulate. 

If resources are limited to enforce the code, then perhaps another method is needed. Regulation is not only about establishing and enforcing rules. Sometimes regulations provide incentives for desired behaviors (ie. tax credits for PV and solar water heaters). 

Regulation also occurs in tandem with social norms. For example, if the Rec Room Loophole is so widely used to add an illegal 2nd unit and if homeowners do this for rental income, then why do most homeowners only add only one? This writer suggests that it is the combination of regulations and social norms together, that are actually quite effective in discouraging more than one Rec Room per property.

Information can also substitute for regulation [insert thesis research]

However, recent legislative efforts have not offered regulatory reform, but instead have focused on shifting liability to the private sector or finding loopholes in their own rules:
  • Private 3rd Party Review to substitute for government review and approval for Building Permits (Honolulu county)
  • efforts to get Private 3rd Party approval for state level permits 
  • HRS 201H exempting affordable housing projects in Hawaii from ALL zoning requirements. This suggests that the existing requirements are so onerous that the state must exempt the projects it desires from the normal regulatory process.
This then begs the question: What is the purpose of regulatory bodies such as the Building Department? In the future, how will they continue to add value to the regulatory process? If 3rd parties can substitute for government agency plan review and provide job site inspections, then why have the Building Department?  Will the Dept of Planning and Permitting become only an archive of approved plans and permits? A sort of quasi-escrow or land register that only ensures public access to certain types of information? That function might seemingly be better served by a large scanner, an internet connection and a google-searchable data set.

I am not suggesting abolishing the Building Department. Rather, i am contemplating its role in a shifting paradigm. As the architect's role evolves, it is reasonable to think that the institutions (Authorities Having Jurisdiction) that regulate the planning and designing of the  built environment, must also change. 

For example, imagine a Building Permit department that was funded based on the number of customers who chose to use their services for code enforcement vs alternative private 3rd parties. In this scenario, staff positions would be well-funded and the role of City Plans Examiner might become more collaborative rather than confrontational. Shifting regulatory efforts from a command and control role to a more collaborative model that includes (informed) consumer empowerment organizations, might also be more effective.