While the beaches and scenic vistas on Hawaii Island are unparalleled, in between those lovely views, the country’s more significant housing issues are playing out in paradise. In my few weeks here, I am learning to see a few systemic problems just under the surface. My perspective comes from my ability to choose where I would like to stay. As I get to know the island, I see the truth to the classic complaints about this island. Housing is expensive, and there is little public infrastructure.
The old adage, “it is who you know NOT what you know,” goes quite deep in Hawaii. I initially spent two weeks at the home of an acquaintance, introduced to me by our mutual friend in Tokyo. From there, I began to search for my own place to rent. Getting started here required me to call upon a lifetime’s worth of patience and resourcefulness. I found both my current home and my car privately through a circle of acquaintances.
Between Luck & Charm
My studio rental is a convenient sub-lease from another traveler. With a gorgeous garden setting, fully furnished, and entirely solo, it is a pleasant change from my first two weeks here, in the acquaintance’s home with five other housemates. Though my temporary studio is beautiful, it includes a cat, traveling geckos, and barking neighbors. As I explore homes in this area, I know people like me are part of the problem. I have some savings to work from and can work online.
The influx of computer-clad techies is pushing the cost from residents beyond control. A new friend and fellow slow-traveler is renting an off-grid cabin (hear, no running water, solar-powered electricity, and 10Mbs speed internet) for $1,300 a month in Puna. For her, this is a good option. A helicopter pilot rents a furnished single bedroom with no kitchen and no internet for $900 a month in Kona. He has running water and hot showers. I think he got a deal. For the locals, these rates are beyond reach.
Poverty in Paradise
The town of Hilo, for example, is densely packed and rainy. Poverty is all around. I cannot help but notice the people pushing worn-out shopping carts from corner to corner. The Landless Lot, my free-verse poem, was written in Tokyo but echoed here. Affordable housing for working people is often in poor condition, if even available. Many city-side homes have upwards of 5 cars parked outside, a tell-tale sign of house-hacking when some share a home with multiple renters (much like my acquaintance’s home).
Though I am in a decent position to look around my limitations go beyond my budget. (I do not have the F-U money to buy a $3 million condo with thousands in monthly association fees. For anyone interested, there are some of those available in the posh North Kona.) For creative solutions, I have considered buying land and building on it. Two immediate hurdles are (1) permitting and (2) wastewater management.
Delays & Cesspools
If I were to buy land and build on it, there are multiple avenues for delay. First, the best contractors, builders, and architects are booked up through the following year. Second, getting a building permit could still take over six months with housing plans drawn up. The slow-moving housing and building departments remind me of Japanese bureaucracy. A labor shortage further compounds these delays. Most surprisingly, while I have been looking around Hawaii Island, I learned about cesspools. A cesspool is essentially a hole in the ground where you let wastewater drain. Cesspools are a popular option when a home cannot connect to the sewage system or won’t go through the expense of a septic system. The cheap solution: a cesspool that barely leads off your property. Later, it will drain into a lava tube on someone else’s land. The consequences are enormous public health concerns. Guess where the wastewater goes? When there is a lot of rain in the areas around Hilo, the beaches get runoff from turbid water. Locals know to check for water quality warnings. Though the EPA has committed Hawaii County to eliminate commercial cesspools, residential builds have a longer leash.
Hawaii County still manages to pull a lot of potential residents from the mainland. By comparison, cheap land prices in remote areas have their draw. Of course, incoming mainlanders create more cost competition for the islanders. Here, I have only part of the picture; the federal government’s program for native Hawaiians still has not delivered on many promised homes. As I pop around and everywhere, I see that Hawaii Island is a microcosm of the country’s housing crisis. The crisis here is compounded by a few active volcanos and poor infrastructure. Thank you for following along on my adventure!