Tupola says empowering people is her motivation
from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii "Hawaii Together", July 24, 2023
In 2021, not long after Andria Tupola joined the Honolulu City Council, the then-director of the Department of Planning and Permitting told her the DPP had a backlog of about 8,000 permits.
On a recent episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Tupola told host Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, that “8,000 is a huge number, but if you quantify that into dollars, into projects, into homes, we’re talking billions of dollars that are just stuck in the economy because they can’t get a permit to proceed.”
So Tupola mapped out a strategy for reducing this backlog.
“One of the easiest things for us to do,” she said, “was to talk through who shouldn’t be in the [permitting] line.”
For example, she questioned the wisdom of requiring people to get permits for electrical work costing $500 or less and plumbing work valued at $1,000 or less. Her bill, Bill 56, which was approved, raised the threshold for both to $2,500.
She also supported a bill to get rid of the requirement that every person who applies for a permit has to get a notarized statement saying there are no fines or liens on the property. Now all they need is a written attestation.
Tupola said a motivating factor in all her efforts is what she experienced in Venezuela while serving on a mission for her church in 2003 and 2004.
“It was very disheartening to see how dependent the people were on the government,” she said. “They gave free housing, free education, free medical to the lowest socioeconomic class. It made people very dependent on voting for the same person that continued these philosophies. But it also took away work ethic and took away the desire to try hard, because the harder you tried, the more it was taken away from you.”
And so, when she returned home, she got involved in local government with the goal of “helping to empower people,” to help them “know how they can help themselves, when the government should intervene, how we can affect policies and, really, how to keep the decision-making as close to our neighborhoods and homes as possible.”
Tupola served four years in the state House, starting in 2014, then was elected to the City Council, in 2020.
Concerning the recent 64% pay raises for members of the nine-member City Council, Tupola was one of three members who vowed not to accept the raise.
Referring to her constituents as her bosses, she said: “We need to be listening to our bosses, who are asking us to be more mindful and moderate.” A lot of her constituents, she said, “were like, ‘We’re fine with the salary increase — [but] not 64%.’”
7-18-23 Joe Kent hosts Andria Tupola on “Hawaii Together”
Joe Kent: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcasting network. I’m Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, filling in for Keliʻi Akina. He’s the president and CEO of our Institute. And today we’re talking with Andria Tupola, who represents District 1 on the Honolulu [City] Council.
We want to ask her about how the Council’s tackling the cost of living in Hawaii, including the cost of housing, permitting and property taxes.
Aloha, Councilmember. Thanks so much for joining me on the program.
Andria Tupola: Hey, Aloha, Joe. Thank you so much for having me.
Kent: I want to start with your story. I understand we have a similar background actually. You started out as a music teacher [laughs], and so did I. How did you find your way into policy matters?
Tupola: Well, first off, for all of you musicians out there, whether it’s band or choir, I love the arts. I definitely think that it’s a way that we’re going to help raise this next generation, is music brings people together.
Well, I served a mission for my church in Venezuela from 2003 to 2004, and that’s actually how I was introduced to political philosophies.
You cannot be apolitical in Venezuela. You actually have to know who the president is. A lot of their philosophies of government affect the everyday living of the citizens there, even till today.
And so when I got back from Venezuela, my eyes were very opened to things that I saw, that I didn’t want to see here in the United States, and also things that I saw that I really had questions about. So I got involved when I got home, and I ran for office for the first time in 2014.
Kent: Oh, that’s really interesting. So, I know Venezuela has a “big government” sort of solution mindset to things, and that’s how we have it here, too, in Hawaii: [that] there is a common thought that government is the solution to all our problems.
But it sounds like you’ve got kind of a critical eye towards that perspective. Is that right?
Tupola: Yeah. It was very disheartening to see in Venezuela how dependent the people were on the government. They gave free housing, free education, free medical to the lowest socioeconomic class. It made people very dependent on voting for the same person that continued these philosophies. But it also took away work ethic and took away the desire to try hard, because the harder you tried, the more it was taken away from you.
And so once I saw that happen, I knew that there needed to be a better philosophy of empowerment, of community ownership, of making decisions on a very district and city level.
You know, there are a lot of decisions being made by the largest form of government for even small towns and cities, and it just doesn’t work well. It doesn’t work well.
And so when I came home, I was very much interested in getting involved in local government and helping to empower people, helping them to know how they can help themselves, when the government should intervene, how we can affect policies and, really, how to keep the decision-making as close to our neighborhoods and homes as possible.
Kent: I see. And congratulations on your awesome social media. I’ve been watching, you know, on my Instagram, and it’s just so fun to look at your videos.
You seem to be getting a lot of feedback from the community about your work and the issues you’re talking about. What are people in Hawaii concerned about?
Tupola: Well, when I became a City Council member in 2021, it was a whole new ballgame for me. I was a State House rep for four years, of which the major issues that we tackle are the Department of Education, Department of Land and Natural Resources. So, the topics we were covering, they were of interest.
But when you become a City Council member, really, one of the heaviest things that we influence is the building of affordable housing, homelessness, permitting, zoning.
So I learned really fast that that was actually one of the biggest problems that we had, were people waiting in line to receive a permit. Now, whether it was for a commercial project or a small fence that you needed to put up, or maybe for a residential project or even down to solar, people were very concerned that the city really was holding up the progress of many local families being able to afford to live here.
Kent: And so how did you delve into that issue? I remember you had some events, some talk-stories that you had hosted. What came of that and what did you find and what happened?
Tupola: Well, after hundreds of inquiries to my office, constituents calling me with different issues that they had, waiting in line for years for a permit, I thought the easiest thing to do would be to invite the director to answer questions directly to the constituents.
So we hosted a town hall in June 2022 with former [Department of Planning and Permitting] director Dean Uchida, and I really wanted clarity. And at the time, I don’t think I even knew really how horrendous the problems were, but I thought, “Hey, why not bring the director here, have him itemize for us what he’s doing?”
I even brought the audit that they recently did in 2017 on the department so that I could kind of like go through the audit and see if he was addressing certain issues that had already been brought up.
And then I wanted there to be a question-and-answer to see if people who were in the room had better ideas than the ones that we had on the table, which is often the case.
It’s often the case that the people have really good ideas, who have been in the trenches trying to fix things for the city. So that town hall was over a hundred people attending, lots and lots of people really looking for answers.
And it did seem like the director was interested in sharing that they wanted a new software system, that they needed more warm bodies, and that he also faced a lot of pushback himself, even as director. Those are the three main takeaways I got from him in that particular meeting.
But I specifically asked, “How many permits are we really waiting on, that your department is trying to process?”
Well, at the time he didn’t have the answer, and then within two days he emailed me and said, “We have about 8,000.”
So, 8,000 is a huge number, but if you quantify that into dollars, into projects, into homes, I mean, we’re talking billions of dollars that are just stuck in the economy because they can’t get a permit to proceed.
Kent: Right. And businesses too. I mean, there’s a lot of businesses who try to … small restaurants who are trying to open and all they’re waiting for is a little permit, and sometimes they wait for a year or two. So that’s great.
I actually remember going to that town hall and it was actually more interesting to listen to the people with the problems than the director.
Although, you know, kudos to Dean Uchida that he was transparent enough to host that.
But anyway, so what came next?
Tupola: Well, he had some suggestions, people had some suggestions, so I created a chart. I said, “OK, let’s itemize every single thing that was brought up and see who does what. Is the mayor going to do this item? Am I as a legislator going to do this item? Is the director going to do this item?”
So I separated it out into responsibility. And I knew that the column that had “legislator” I could affect, because the director and the mayor can’t make law changes; we [at the Council] have to do that. So I started to list out: What are the things that we could change in the law that would really help to alleviate the problem?
Now, notwithstanding the heaviest portions do lie with the director and with the mayor, meaning the ability for them to hire people to do code review, the ability for them to spend our money to buy a new software. Those are all things that a legislator can’t force; that’s something the administration has to go through.
So the few things that I had on my list, I thought they were doable, you know. I listed them out, I said, “Let’s make a bill for it, let’s push it through the Council, let’s explain it to my colleagues on where we’re at with it.”
And it’s been interesting. It’s been interesting because I haven’t gotten a lot of pushback from any of my colleagues specifically, but I do feel like Zoning Chair Calvin Say, you know, he kind of tries to double-check the things that I’m doing, double-check with the director and in the meantime, right, we got a new director, so I had to kind of run all my great ideas by her and say, “Hey, could we pursue these things that me and the former director were talking about? And I think these would actually be of great service to you.”
And she agreed. So I’ve been working hand in hand with her because we are trying to do things that help the department, not hurt the department or make it harder, because that would be …
Kent: So just to go technical, what, what kind of things are we talking about?
Tupola: Well, one of the things that passed right away, because former Councilmember Brandon Elefante was working on it, was changing a notary to an attestation. So we had had some issues with people having fines and liens.
And so there was a law that was passed that said that every person that applies for a permit has to go get a notarized statement saying that there are no fines and liens on the property.
Now, it’s tough because the people who are applying for these permits are not the owner of the home. They do not know the history of the home. They could be the electrician, the plumber, and so many of them are having trouble even just getting through that step.
Now, a written attestation made it a lot easier because to the best of their knowledge, they needed to know that there was no fines and liens and then turn that in. So that changed right away with Councilmember Elefante’s bill.
I started working on one for solar. It was a resolution urging them to use SolarAPP+, which is a federal tool that was made for each of the cities that are trying to pursue green energy goals.
I made one to increase the amount of relief workers that we have, because I do believe while they hire people to work formally for the city and county of Honolulu, that we need relief workers now.
I introduced one in regards to code review, and that actually is done at the state side. So that resolution did pass and the bill itself was introduced at the state leg [Legislature], but wasn’t passed through all three readings.
I introduced Bill 56 that was recently passed that included more exemptions for home repairs. I have Bill 18, which is about residential courtesy inspection.
Kent: Actually, can we … I want to talk about that Bill 56, ’cause that’s remarkable that that one passed, and congratulations to you on that. I think you were the primary pusher of that bill. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
Tupola: Sure. It was one of the easiest things for us to do was to talk through who shouldn’t be in the line. So if we have a huge permitting line of 8,000 people, we may be micromanaging things that we shouldn’t be doing, right? Because perhaps some of these outdated laws needed to be updated.
So in the exemption list on Revised Ordinances of Honolulu Chapter 18, it specifically states all the things you don’t need a permit for. And some of those valuation amounts were old. So they were saying that, you know, with $500 or less, you didn’t need a permit for license electrical work.
I’m not totally sure what you could do with $500 or less, because I just replaced, like, a switch in my bedroom and that was like $150. So, and it was just for the switch because it was broken.
So, I think what we had to look at was when were these valuation amounts set and really should that they be at a higher threshold considering that the evaluation amount is for labor and materials.
So we decided to add things to this exemption list, like fences under 6 feet shouldn’t need a permit. And that’s actually a handful of people.
Solar that needs updating because maybe you were like part of the first round of people who got solar when it first came up, and now you need newer technology, but you’re changing nothing. You’re swapping out parts and you have the exact same electrical output. Now that doesn’t need a permit.
Now, electrical under $2,500, plumbing under $2,500, all of that doesn’t need a permit.
Kent: Well, can you talk about the idea of private review of plans to help ease the permitting backlog? Right now, the plans are reviewed just wholly by the county. I think they have a third-party review in some way, but this would expand that somehow? Can you explain that?
Tupola: Well, that particular bill was brought forward by the administration, and it’s called …
Well, we have the third-party review that you just mentioned, but they’re also trying to bring forward another way of doing it, which would be that they allow for some code review to happen at the level of architects and electricians and a various group that have done certification through the city.
So I do believe that … there is some concern, right? I feel like they really need to sharpen up the third-party review because I think that introducing something that’s almost similar to the third-party review — but not third-party review — is a little confusing.
I actually just read an email this morning because the department is changing rules for third-party reviewers. Now, let’s be clear that when you’re a third-party reviewer that you have commercial and you have private — I mean residential.
And so there are people that are specifically doing commercial review and people that are doing specifically residential review.
The third-party reviews are required to get a license, required to do certification tests through the city, required to have X amount of millions of dollars of insurance, and required to recertify every few years.
So I think for the city, they really just need to, I think, clean up their administrative rules and then decide what route they’re going. Because I think the third-party review obviously got a lot of backlash when people went to jail over it, right?
It was one third-party reviewer, and then it was a handful of people working in DPP [Department of Planning and Permitting] that were rubber-stamping things, not looking at things, and basically letting it push through.
So, I think that that is part of the suggestion the city has to expedite things, but it has been a source of controversy because HGEA [Hawaii Government Employees Association] does feel like that is a way for the city to skip over hiring the amount of workers that they really need.
And I would say that, we can’t downplay the fact that no matter what we’re doing, we need more workers, so …
Kent: Yeah, that’s interesting. There’s an interesting theme going on when it comes to … from the outside observer. If the Department of [Planning] [and], you know, Permitting does it, then there’s a potential that people might do bad things and go to jail. At the same time, if third-party reviewers do it, there’s a potential that people might do bad things and go to jail. [laughs]
And so, you know, it’s kind of like, who at the end of the day is watching things? Who are we going to trust to watch things? And how does incentives play a role in all of this? So that’s a really complicated question.
How do you view those types of questions about who ultimately should watch the watchers?
Tupola: Well, I think that no matter where you go, there’s going to be people that are trying to game the system. Now, that’s with permitting, that’s with game rooms, that’s with anything that you have in the community where there’s kind of a gray area, right?
So there’s always going to be people that need to be checked ethically to determine whether or not they are doing the right or the wrong thing.
I do not think that because one person does the wrong thing, that now all of a sudden this whole system doesn’t work, right? So we have a bad actor, and now we can’t just say, “Oh, well all of DPP is now dysfunctional.” OK?
The one person that did the unethical thing that went to prison, that person needs to be dealt with. The people that were in that circle or that thought that that was OK need to be dealt with, and then we need to continue to move forward.
So I think it’s an ongoing evaluation process of the work that’s being done there, and of the workers that are in that department — right? — is that both of those checks need to be continuously happening.
Kent: I want to switch to taxes and property taxes. Hawaii’s property tax assessments have been soaring this year, but it looks like the Council is looking at a few measures that might help, you know, cap or exempt or help give some at least relief from pushing property owners off the tax cliff, so to speak.
So how do you view some of those proposals and what proposals might we be seeing?
Tupola: Proposals in regards to pushing people off a tax cliff. Is that what you just said? [chuckles]
Kent: Yeah, sorry. So there’s, for example, Bill 42 would put a cap on those assessments rising, and then you’ve got Bill 34, which might increase the standard home exemption. So there’s caps, exemptions and things like that.
When it comes to Hawaii’s rising property taxes, it looks like the city has some kind of initiative to keep those taxes at bay.
Tupola: Well, there are handfuls and handfuls of proposals regarding property tax assessments. And I’ve actually started my own spreadsheet of it internally in my office because it is kind of difficult to keep track of what all of them do, and what classes of people they affect, and how much each of the bills would potentially cost the city, and lastly, how much money it would actually save taxpayers.
So in each of those columns that I’ve created, I’ve tried to itemize that out because I think as we push forward with all of these proposals, 1) we have to figure out economically and feasibly, can the city do that, or are we going to be affecting other things?
Secondly is, we need to figure out what is the most important class tax base that needs the most help. Is it the 80 and older? Is it the 60 and older? Is it the low income, because there are a lot of people that need help with the rising cost of assessed property values and subsequently, the rising costs of property taxes.
So, unfortunately, no one’s kind of taking like more of a priority order to it, which I think would help all of us to understand like, hey, we’re going to start with the kupuna first, or, hey, we’re going to start with, like, those making under $20,000 first.
Whatever we decide to do, I think that that needs to be dealt with first, and then you need to kind of look at, OK, how much does that affect the tax base? How do we compensate for that by having other city things that will now start to pay for themselves?
So I think that that’s my concern.
But my personal thought [chuckles] — which is way past what people are doing — was truth in taxation. I believe that truth in taxation is a solid concept. It’s being done in four to five different states.
I know that currently Texas has it, Utah has it, Tennessee has it, Kansas has it and I think another northwestern state. But the idea here is that the base of taxes being collected for property taxes stays the same.
So what they’re saying is, “OK, if we collect $50 billion for property taxes in X city, then every year, as valuations go up and down, we’re still just going to collect $50 billion because that’s what we need to balance our budget, right?”
And so what do they do? When the valuation starts to rise and they start to collect more and more money, they have a public hearing in the cities where more money was collected, and then they determine that they’re going to bring down property taxes. So that the base amount is basically neutral; it’s always the $50 billion no matter what happens.
Now, I know that’s a really hard pill for the city to swallow, but I think the first step that they take is not hard to swallow, which is annual public hearings just about property taxes. I say that’s not hard to do.
Kent: I see. Yeah, you know, I think in Colorado, they actually have a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, so that if, you know, they ever want to raise taxes, it has to go to a vote of the people. And because of that, that’s kept a leash on taxes in Colorado.
Now, that’s an interesting idea about truth in taxation. And along with taxation, we have city leaders, excuse me, rail officials now talking about the potential to extend taxes that were once temporary for the operational costs or the future building of the rail.
I don’t know if everyone is, you know, jumping into the conversation yet. We only hear basically the officials talking about it. But do you have any thoughts about, like, rail?
“Yes, we’re building it. It’s kind of done, and they’ve shaved off a couple billion, which is, you know, good because we were saving costs.”
At the same time, they’re talking about extending the rail, going beyond and going beyond the, of course, the taxation that we have right now too. Any thoughts there?
Tupola: Yeah, I do think that the biggest thing the city can do is try to figure out where and how they can bring in more income that’s not tax-related. We own the [Neal] Blaisdell [Center]. We own the [Waikiki] Shell. We own the Honolulu Zoo. We have things that definitely could generate more income than they’re generating, but we don’t.
We have properties that could have solar. We’ve properties that could have energy savings. So I know they’re taking some steps towards that, but when you talk about every department in and of itself, what we’re saying is, we need X amount of money from taxpayers so that we can do X amount of things for you, right?
So, if we need to do X amount of things, then all we have to say is, “OK, how do we make it where each department actually is self-sufficient, where they generate enough revenue that they don’t need tax dollars to operate?”
Now, that’s where you become smarter in how you run the government, is because then you’re not constantly saying, “Well, we’re not totally sure. We might have to extend that tax because we’re not sure.”
If every part of the government, say, for example, just Department of Enterprise Services become solvent, meaning like every year they don’t need taxes to operate, because they bring in money from the Shell, they bring in concerts at the zoo, they bring in money from the Blaisdell, then that department doesn’t need any funding.
If DPP started to run private-activity bonds and give out loans for people doing affordable housing off of the bond cap that we are allowed in the city, maybe DPP doesn’t need any funding anymore because they become solvent.
So, I think for me that’d be a better way to approach the funds that we have in the city and then, later down the line, determine whether or not those funds can actually help the rail instead of us ever, ever having to talk about more taxes.
Kent: You showed some fiscal restraint when it came to the salary hikes at the Council recently — the salary hikes, which passed, by the way. But can you talk a little bit about the reasoning that you had behind trying to advocate for not hiking the salary so much?
Tupola: You know, in a time where people are very concerned that the rail just opened, we don’t have enough money. We have other areas of the city where we’re deficient. We don’t have enough workers. We are short almost 400 police officers.
It’s a time where people really feel like this is not when raises should be discussed, and this is not when money should be extended to the administration or to the leaders of the City and County when we have so much deficit.
I also believe that many of the members of the community spoke out in the salary commission meetings, as well as in our City Council meetings. And really, those are our bosses.
So I don’t work for the City and County of Honolulu, I work for my constituents. They are who elect me. So if there is disciplinary action for me, I am disciplined by either recall or if I don’t win an election.
So I think that’s where I really was like, we really need to be listening to our bosses who really are asking us to be more mindful and moderate. A lot of people were like, “We’re fine with the salary increase — not 64%.”
Kent: So I’m looking into the future. What kind of issues and policies and things are you looking at tackling?
Tupola: Well, I definitely want to pursue and continue down the path of expediting and making more efficient the Department of Planning and Permitting. Although we’ve had a few wins, we have lots and lots and lots of more work that we have to do in that department.
I also think that on the property tax side, I do hope we can get at least an annual public hearing with the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services.
Even just going over how to do your home exemption, what type of programs we already have allowable in our past that you can apply for, so that you don’t have as high of a property tax. So I do really openly advocate for more transparency in what we’re doing.
Even if it’s the 50th time we’ve said it, there are still people that are going to say, I’ve never heard of that before. So I don’t see any harm in us continuing to pursue as many public and transparent conversations as possible.
Kent: Well, thanks. I know just watching your videos on Instagram and social media it seems to me that you’re trying to do two things: One is legislate and the other is educate. And, you know, education is part of it too.
Also, another thing I notice is you rolling up your sleeves — and not your sleeves, but other people’s sleeves too — to try to solve the problems.
Tupola: Yes, those are among my favorite things to do: empowering the community. And as a former educator — and I have three degrees in music education — it’s a huge thing for me that, one day when I’m not here, I hope that I have educated the community enough that they’re able to help themselves, and know more about this government that really affects the quality of our lives.
So thank you so much for allowing me to share more about what I’m doing at the City.
Kent: Thanks so much for joining us, Andria, and thank you all for watching. It’s Joe Kent at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for “Hawaii Together.” Thanks so much to ThinkTech. Aloha.