The Hawaii Tiny House Initiative was launched with the goal of first solving the farm worker housing challenges faced on Hawaii Island. As a result of multiple meetings, working groups, and research with County departments, we’ve heard a lot of different stories of challenges and of opportunities.
The bold but simple 2017 HB2 Tiny House on Ag Lot Bill that had full State Senate and majority State House approval, and full unanimous County Council support, failed to pass the Governor’s approval and was vetoed on July 11, 2017. See the hundreds of public comments here.
While this is frustrating for the thousands of people it impacts, it also offers a teachable moment. If indeed, as the Governor describes, there is already a mechanism in the Hawaii County Planning Department for Tiny Houses to be approved, why then is it not happening?
We’ve decided to further educate ourselves and our readers about the regulations, the opportunities, and the barriers small farms face in providing adequate safe housing for farm workers, which is absolutely essential to build an ag economy work force in order to diminish our State’s dependence on imported foods.
The Worker Housing Challenge on Hawaii Island
Here is what we’ve learned so far.
The mostly good news:
1) Farm dwellings are allowed by County code on working ag lots, if at least 220 square feet with a living area, kitchen and bathroom. This can be a main house, or additional house/s if if you already have a main house. There is a no-cost mechanism to request approval from the Planning Dep’t for the first or for additional dwellings.
2) Planning Dep’t processes and County regulations place no restriction on the size of these residential ag buildings, but the Building Department does have a 220 sq ft minimum for 2 people, 100 sq ft for additional person above that. Planning does restrict placement of the dwellings, set backs from property boundaries and open space between each dwelling. There are still zoning challenges, but their rules are not the biggest barriers.
3) The Building department states it has never permitted a mobile Tiny House because they are “too small”, but has permitted larger than 220 sq ft container homes and yurts.
4) While farm worker dwellings can be allowed through a Planning Dept ‘Additional Farm Dwelling Agreement Application’ that verifies you are indeed starting or already operating a working farm, it is difficult to obtain clear written information regarding the activities the residents of these dwellings must be involved in to qualify the dwelling as a farm worker house. This may be an advantage as it implies that anyone involved in the farm’s food system process can qualify as a dwelling resident. From seed to harvest to farmer’s market to store deliveries, from processing to packaging to book keeping to marketing, all of this employment is essential to a farm’s operation.
5) Verbal information from the Planning Dep’t, not included in the Agreement Application or easy to find online, is that the first two additional houses must be occupied by someone employed at least 16 hours a week in farm work. To qualify for the third dwelling, the worker must be full time (likewise any other dwellings above the first three require full time farm employment). The applicant must show sufficient crop in development to warrant more than two dwellings. But does this account for full-time workers who split their time between farms? Or if a tiny house, why would the work requirement be the same as if for a large house?
6) Your actual crop production – current or planned – and farm maintenance needs are a large part of how you make the case for these additional dwellings. If you have the farm production planned, started, or well under way, you then have two years after zoning approval to secure the funding and begin building the additional dwellings.
We recommend applying to get these approvals right away to show the County
how many of these dwellings are needed. No cost to apply.
The challenging news:
Building Department and Materials Issues
1) The cost to build these additional houses to current code, using traditional imported stick built materials, and the costs for permits and infrastructure are most often beyond the ability of a small farm to afford.
2) None of this takes into account the very real situation of a beginning farmer who can’t build a big main house, much less additional houses, and their needs for tiny house financing, low cost permitting, and more affordable building designs and methods.
3) The rules and regulations at the Building Department appear to be one of the biggest hurdles in need of rethinking and streamlining. If a farmer wants to build an engineer-stamped tiny house design, especially one that has been approved by another farmer already, can the building department create a streamlined permit process at an affordable cost – for example, $500? vs $5,000+?
4) If a farmer found a means to finance the acquisition of a pre-built tiny house, say at $500 a month, the cost of the permit to have that tiny dwelling legally on the farm is mostly likely over $5,000 (based on a Building Dept. permit estimate of 10% of built costs as the permit costs and a $50,000 unit cost). That permit cost is prohibitive for a small farmer.
5) Local builders report lengthy permit processing once they enter into the Building Dep’t review process, additional costs to meet all of the different department’s demands, and also note that septic hook ups, electric, or compost toilets and grey water systems, or solar power systems, can add considerable cost to the basic tiny house shell, finishing and furnishing costs.
6) If the Tiny House is mobile, and lived in year round, then it is not actually a ‘camping’ trailer so it needs to be given a different vehicle category. It should not need a building permit if it is a vehicle (but it would be good idea to still build to code in case it does settle down permanently off a trailer base some day). This new category wouldn’t require annual vehicle inspections if situated in a long term location (accomplished by turning in the license plate). It would be a registration method for a mobile home, a type of permit that allows the owner or resident to tell the truth and not have to pretend they don’t actually ‘live’ in it.
Housing Subsidy Issue
7) At this time there are no approved mobile home units being used for Section 8 housing vouchers on Hawaii Island, a cost saving which may be available to a farm worker or family if they could find a permanent traditional build apartment. The subsidy that could lower their housing costs, that they might be qualified to receive, is not currently available. We need Section 8 to prioritize our ag workers and begin approving farm worker rental assistance in mobile, regular build, or Tiny Houses.
8) If the farmer was able to afford the building permit process, and had financing for the unit or units, what happens if it is a mobile unit and it needs to move to another farm location? What happens if it is a mobile unit being bought by the farm worker themselves and they need the flexibility to move it between locations? Who pays the permit? Neither the land owner, farm owner, or farm worker should have to refile the zoning plan, or pay a building permit fee each time it relocates. Can Zoning allow for placement of temporary dwellings in such a way it does not trigger the building permit costs?
9) At one time, until not long ago, camping was allowed on ag lots which, if reinstated, would be an easy way to enable the use of temporary dwellings, like a tiny house, or a yurt, with out complex permit requirements. Comparing past and current versions of the County code, camping has recently been disallowed; it appears it was also disallowed at the State ag land use level as well.
We need ag worker camping reinstated as an allowable use on ag lots, state wide!
From what we can glean, currently there is not yet a clear solution to
solving these challenges.
Even with the veto, HB2 has brought these needs and barriers into
the light and there are many of us pressing for real solutions.
The Bigger Farm Worker and Farm Owner Challenge
As farmers age out and can no longer farm, some of these stalwart food system leaders would like to find a way to transfer ownership of their land to a younger farmer who likely does not have the financial resources to buy the farm. How do we help match up retiring and young farmers, and provide them with a feasible land transfer method? With the pressure to develop land for housing and commercial use for short term economic gain, and the need to provide a fair inheritance to the farmer’s own descendants, how does the land get valued fairly for all concerned?
And how do we ensure there are enough young farmers fully committed to entering food production as a life career path? Our organization has been offered a land transition opportunity, for example, but could find no young farmers able to make the commitment to take on the farm as their own business operation. Likewise, when Gentlemen farm lot owners want to see part of their land farmed under a lease, how can they find young farmers with the commitment, skills and follow through to enter into a mutually beneficial land use agreement?
Solutions: Create a Farm Housing Community Loan Program and Create Agricultural Housing Land Trusts
Currently there are Agricultural Land Trusts that protect open farm land from future non-ag development, but do not provide housing for farmers to farm the land and become co-operators. There are also Housing Land Trusts that provide affordable housing for working households, but do not provide land to farm as an economic engine.
In meetings with our counterparts on the mainland, there is a growing imagining of a new type of Land Trust as a land access instrument, one that:
1) perpetuates local agriculture with out requiring exorbitant up front land purchase costs
2) allows farmers to build a home that they own or acquire a pre-built home they can build equity in
3) promotes land use design that keeps the rural view plane intact for future generations
4) integrates a viable housing and food economy model that enables those who want to farm to have the land to feed their community.
Watch for Hawaii Island Housing Summit in 2018 with green built, innovative land use, alternative materials, renewable energy and water solutions!