Eden Updates

Q&A with Kate Blystone Director, Department of Planning, County of Maui

May 7, 2024

As Californians know all too well, fires have a devastating impact on people’s lives, often resulting in the loss of homes, possessions and livelihoods; and increasing the likelihood of homelessness, particularly in areas where housing affordability is already a challenge.

Kate Blystone, the new director in the Department of Planning for the County of Maui, is acutely familiar with this situation, as she stepped into this pivotal position at a critical time, following the devastating fires of August 8 that razed over 2,200 structures and exacerbated an already-pressing housing crisis in Lahaina and Upcountry.

Blystone brings over 20 years of planning and project management experience to her role, having previously served Maui County as a senior planner for more than three years before transitioning to the role of Maui-based project manager at Bowers & Kubota Consulting. During her tenure there, she contributed significantly to the Hawaii Community Foundation’s House Maui Initiative, a program launched in late 2020 aimed at dismantling barriers within government systems to create more equitable and affordable housing options.

We had the privilege of hearing from Blystone about Maui County’s efforts to tackle these pressing issues, particularly in guiding the rebuilding of Lahaina and addressing the affordable housing crisis.

Affordable housing remains a critical concern in both Maui and California. What strategies have you found effective in mitigating the impact of skyrocketing housing prices in your community; and looking ahead, what strategies are you hopeful about employing in your new role?

We have not been successful at dealing with skyrocketing housing prices in Maui County just yet, but I am hopeful about the future. In July we will bifurcate the Department of Housing and Human Concerns into two separate departments, which means we will have a department that is 100% focused on housing. I have great hopes for this department and look forward to supporting their efforts from my position in the Planning Department.

My department is looking into ways to enable so called “missing-middle” housing types. These were much more common before single-family housing became the norm, and they are much more cost-effective and affordable than single-family homes. We are working on updates to our zoning code and planning to do outreach to our islands to show them that this kind of human-scale density doesn’t have to be scary. These mid-scale housing types can lead to really amazing communities if we apply our local eye to the design.

In both of our communities, wildfires have not only devastated homes but have also amplified the existing housing crises. Can you share your insights on how our cities can continue to work toward affordable housing solutions amid environmental disasters?

Environmental disasters and social disasters like the affordable housing crisis have the same outcomes—displaced people who are struggling to meet their daily needs in a dignified way. I think the important thing is to keep our eyes on the goal and work towards it. In the case of Maui, the problem was already huge before the fire. It’s good to keep the number of units we are striving for in mind, but it’s just as important to focus on little wins along the way. Freeing up some housing units that are currently devoted to visitors for local families; building a huge workforce rental project; and completing a small, infill missing-middle project all get us to more housing for our local residents. We have to celebrate these wins and keep plugging away on the overall number.

Maui is in the midst of a significant transition; how will you balance smart growth, protection of natural resources, and the urgent need for affordable housing?

Planners are trained to balance these different priorities automatically. Smart growth, protecting natural resources, and affordable housing are all mutually supportive of each other. The transition we are experiencing doesn’t really change that fundamental way of thinking. In addition to these factors, we also consider the needs and wishes of the current community and balance those needs with what we anticipate future generations will need. It’s tricky to explain how we do it, but this balancing act is always guided by our profession’s oath to protect health, safety and general welfare in every decision we make. We will continue to use that as our guiding star.

You have more than 20 years of experience as a land planner and community engagement professional in the public, private, nonprofit and education planning sectors. How do you plan to leverage your experience to bolster the community’s affordable housing efforts?

I have had the privilege of being able to study the affordable housing issue intensely a few times over the course of my career. I intend to use what I learned in all the places I have worked and studied to support the new Housing Department as they get their footing and guide my department toward an environment which is more supportive of projects that house our local residents. My experience here in Hawaiʻi has taught me that the solutions that work well on the continent may not work well here in Maui County. That said, all of the experience I have gained over the years, combined with the experience of everyone working on this issue, will help get Maui County to where we need to be in the coming years. It will take ahonui (patience), but I believe we can make significant progress if we stay focused on the goal no matter what comes our way.