Is a 'big house' coming to your neighborhood? Plans in the works as officials weigh fixes

Honolulu’s mayor is asking his administration to take action as the "big house" trend continues to spread on Oahu.

Always Investigating first revealed the problem earlier this year, as more apartment buildings disguised as houses popped up in single-family neighborhoods.

We showed how developers were fitting these giant structures into the letter of the building code, while neighbors complained they violated the intent of zoning rules.

Since our report, several measures have been initiated by the Honolulu City Council to try to stop it.

As we continue to follow up, we tracked down what’s ahead building-wise for some neighborhoods, and found out it may be a race to the finish line with some builders having a jump start.

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Complaints are mounting, but we found zoning inspections and violation notices overall dropping. Permits for new big houses continue to be issued.

Though lawmakers are trying to stop it, the city Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) has remained neutral so far on the proposed legislation.

Always Investigating asked Mayor Kirk Caldwell what his administration is doing about the concerns, and he told us these homes may be the result of a need for more affordable housing, but that he still wants limits.

They stand out in quaint residential neighborhoods, giant homes with eight, nine, 10, even 28 bedrooms in single-family or, at best, two-family zoned parts of Oahu.

"There's one right down the street on Hala Drive," said longtime Aupuni Street resident Shannon Kunishige. "I thought, how could they get so close to the boundaries?"

That Hala Drive big house may be a few blocks away from his cottage, but Always Investigating was the first to tell Kunishige there's a three-story, 15-bedroom giant about to sprout right next door at 1712 Aupuni Street.

It's one of several on a list of upcoming projects Always Investigating got on a list of city building department permit applications.

The new neighbors, whose permit is in the review phase as a single-family home, hadn't told Kunishige, or any others we met, that a big house was on the drawing board

"Pretty much they were just going to fix the house at first," Kunishige said.

Always Investigating asked, "When you see 15 bedrooms, what do you worry about?"

"Parking and noise. Probably noise," Kunishige said.

We ran into the new owners onsite and asked, how many bedrooms are here now? They tell us there are five.

Their 15-bedroom plan would triple the size, and we asked, why such a big home here? "Big family," owner Xuemei Xue replied.

Always Investigating asked, will it be all her family living here? "Yes," she said.

How many people? Xue counts: "We have like, um, we have seven, nine, and then even my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law like, we have big family."

The Xue property is zoned residential for single family. We've uncovered other big houses used for everything from a rent-a-room complex to pricey vacation rentals.

We asked Xue, will she be renting any of it to tenants or tourists? "No rent," Xue said, "but if my friends like coming from China, we will let them live."

DPP says owners of places like the Xue property are now being asked to sign deed restrictions to be recorded with the Bureau of Conveyances, promising to abide by the occupancy rules of family only.

That’s news to this owner, who long since applied for the permit and knew nothing of such a requirement.

"Do I have to sign?" Xue asked. "That's what they're telling us. Have you heard about that yet?" we responded.

"No," Xue said. We asked, would she sign if they tell her it becomes a requirement? "I don't know," Xue said.

There were more surprises in store for neighbors as we went door to door elsewhere with the upcoming structures list.

Folks to either side of a steep, cleared lot at 3378 Kalihi Street didn't know the city has approved issuance of a permit for an 18-bedroom house. They say they'd been told 10 rooms, and that it might be a care home.

The owners told Always Investigating they'll keep it as a single-family home, unless or until they get a care home license.

Right now, there's no limit on room count, and DPP sticks neutrally to abiding code, telling Always Investigating in a statement: "We cannot prohibit a building permit for a large house on the assumption that it will be illegally occupied."

"If these homes are in compliance, then we really need to change the rules," said Honolulu City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who introduced the first of several big-house-related measures.

The first asked DPP how they'd recommend redefining code to meet the spirit of the zoning. DPP didn't offer suggestions, so he put in another measure suggesting limits on the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, even sinks and wet bars. A bill introduced by Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi would tax them higher. A Carol Fukunaga bill would put a moratorium on them.

"I have instructed the Department of Planning and Permitting to draft regulatory language that would limit the size of these homes by restricting the dimensions and density of these buildings, and having stricter requirements for off-street parking," Caldwell told Always Investigating. "The Honolulu City Council has also introduced several measures to try and curb the construction of monster homes before they become an issue in other areas, and my administration looks forward to working collaboratively with all nine members on sound legislation. We have to keep in mind that monster homes may be the result of the need for more affordable housing on Oahu, and anything we do must be a part of the overall solution."

Always Investigating asked lawmakers, how quickly can legislative changes happen, because dozens of the big houses have already been built, dozens are in the works and who knows how many more are being designed and applied for right now?

"Well I think that we're going to come to a halt very soon," Ozawa said. "Until we get a wrangle on this situation, we're not going to let people just race to the finish line."

Yet nearly two dozen with eight to 18 bedrooms are on that new permit list we went door to door with. Dozens more popped up before that.

Complaints are soaring, council members say.

"People are sick and tired of these huge houses coming up right next door to them and really disrupting their lives," Ozawa said.

The city gave us a list of 20 big-house complaints they followed up on this year. Fewer than half of them resulted in a notice of violation.

DPP said in a statement: "Occupancy violations continue to be a challenge for DPP to enforce as difficulties exists in identifying relationships within family members. Also we cannot cite before a violation is committed."

The number of violations caught overall has plummeted this year - from 462 notices of violation in 2016 to just 99 so far in 2017. DPP says that’s because last year they had five special inspectors hired just to ferret out illegal vacation rentals - many of which take place in these big homes - and that special unit phased out.

But the mayor says efforts will be redoubled over big-house concerns.

"The Department of Planning and Permitting has begun reinspecting these large homes to ensure they meet both building and zoning codes," Caldwell told Always Investigating.

When fines are issued, they are usually settled for 10 cents on the dollar.

"I think with regard to these huge houses, these monster homes, we've got to enforce strict and quickly," Ozawa said. "It starts with either preventing these houses from being built in the first place, or finding if DPP has any problems with enforcing, which it seems like they do."

Lawmakers say stricter parking requirements are likely to be added to measures moving through council.

"Perhaps with regard to parking, requiring over X-number of bedrooms then you have one parking stall on site per bedroom after that," Ozawa said.

We asked the 15-bedroom builders how are they going to handle parking, and will they have enough off-street parking for all their residents so none will have to park on the street.

"Yes," Xue said. "We have six parking."

Besides parking requirements being added into the bills, lawmakers also looking at making big-house builders get city council approval first, like a Conditional Use Permit-Major, or CUP-Major, process.

"There have been several CUP-Major projects that have had less of an impact than some of these monster homes, and definitely changing the character of the neighborhood a lot more than some of these projects that actually have to come before city council," Ozawa said. "What I'd like to see is some more teeth. If you're going to build these monster homes, come before the city council. Tell us straight to the face."

Keep up with the status of big-house-related measures at Honolulu Hale:


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