Audit: City failed to control ‘monster homes’ or take residents’ complaints seriously

Critic says city “took their eye off the ball”

Audit: City failed to control ‘monster homes’ or take residents’ complaints seriously
Residents are complaining about the construction of what they dub a monster home along Lilipuna Road in Kaneohe. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu’s Planning and Permitting Department has failed to effectively manage building permits or inspections of so-called “monster homes,” a new city audit concludes.

The auditor also said information from various operations within the department is not organized well enough to prevent problems “so it is only able to discover issues ... based on complaints only.”

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, leader of the community group HI Good Neighbors and a construction industry lobbyist called the audit “extremely troubling.”

“Its clear that the monster home phenomenon would not have happened but for the department’s ineffective internal processes their inability to follow up and in many cases not doing what they were supposed to do,” Dos Santos-Tam said.

Other key findings:

  • There is lack of accountability for violators and limited deterrence because the department does not effectively or efficiently manage its overdue violations.
  • The department did not aggressively fine violators ― 77% of potential fines were not assessed; and most of those that were assessed were not collected if the builder eventually complied.
  • In a review of 170 large detached homes approved by the department between 2017 and 2019, most were not owner-occupied as required by law.
  • Existing controls and regulations are applied inconsistently, sometimes approving unwarranted permits.
  • Complaints are not assessed for the level of risk to a particular location or to identify trends in a neighborhood.

In some of the most critical language, Auditor Troy Shimasaki said the city’s attitude toward complaints is part of what let the problem get out of control.

[Read more: Mounting city fines don’t deter owner building monster home on steroids]

[Read more: City gives approval to ‘monster homes’ contractor despite public outcry]

“We found that the department has been generally dismissive about community concerns, insisting that this kind of development was permissible under previous development standards.,” the audit said.

“Responding only when legislation was passed to deal with these issues was entirely too late because the large detached dwellings and their impacts were already established and affecting residential communities.”

It also said complaints were not treated fairly.

“Complaints from political representatives are given the highest priority of response,” the report said. Staff told the auditor that they tried to service those complaints in one to three days.

The city responded to the audit, agreeing that new permit review software would improve the monitoring of large detached dwellings. It is also seeking higher fees for violators who submit permit applications after they’ve already begin construction.

The city conceded chronic turnover of building permit review staff, made worse by “constant change” in the laws and ordinances they enforce, has meant monster homes were not well-regulated.

The city did not respond to the comments about not taking complaints seriously, and refused to offer anyone to be interviewed for this story.

Instead, the city referred Hawaii News Now to its official letter in response, which was included in the audit report.


Audit of DPP by HNN on Scribd

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