AS HOME PRICES SPIKE NATIONWIDE, MAUI FACES THE PEAK OF A SYSTEMIC HOUSING CRISIS. MANY BORN AND RAISED ON-ISLAND ARE LEAVING FOR MORE AFFORDABLE STATES AS AFFLUENT NEWCOMERS BUY PROPERTIES AT RECORD SPEED.
On a busy Thursday afternoon at Kahului Airport, Kawika Kaina and his family pulled up to the curb in their silver Toyota Tundra amidst a flurry of rental cars and departing tourists. Kaina, 40, hugged his teenage daughter Deslyn and his niece Lauae and kissed his wife Pohai goodbye before he and his oldest daughter Deisia gathered their oversized suitcases and walked towards the crowded check-in counter, towards a new life in Nevada.
Kaina and Pohai and their four children were born and raised in Hana, as were his parents and grandparents. They are moving to Reno because they cannot — and likely will never be able to — afford a home on Maui if they stay.
“It’s really hard, Hana is all we’ve ever known,” Pohai said as her husband waved back at her with tears in his eyes. The following week she and their three younger children will join them in Reno. Their youngest son, who was enrolled in the Pūnana leo Hawaiian immersion program at Hana School, is most uneasy about the move, Kaina said.
In July, Maui County’s median home price reached an all-time high of $1,050,000. Median income, meanwhile, hovered around $83,800 in 2020. Undeterred by the global pandemic, housing prices jumped nearly 35% this July, year on year, while income increased only 5.9% in 2019, the county’s most recent statistics.
Decades of surging demand for housing coupled with lagging supply, underwhelming employment opportunities, lethargic infrastructure development and spikes in construction material costs have created a market where housing is unattainable for the majority of Maui residents.
The popular refrain “Lucky We Live Hawaiʻi” is called into question by locals facing the economic dilemma of competing with a housing market that is beyond reach for many born in America’s paradise islands.
“You grow up being taught that though making a living is hard, the living is worth it,” said Kaina. “But, then you go to places where making a living is so much easier that life there might be worth it.”
Statewide, nearly a third of homeowners spend over 35% of their income on a mortgage, more than in any other U.S. state, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Hawaiʻi’s median rent, including utilities, was 50% higher than the US average—higher than in any other state according to the 2020 US Census.
Nationally, the median home price rose to $390,500 this July, an 18.4% increase from the previous year, as interest rates flatlined, positioning those who profited from the pandemic as competitive buyers while millions of low-income households fought to hold onto housing via expiring eviction moratoriums and unemployment benefits.
In early 2021, 7 million of America’s 43 million renters were behind on rent according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. The nearing end of Hawaiʻi’s eviction moratorium, that expired on August 1, has sparked fears of an uptick in homelessness, despite the $40 million in federal emergency rental assistance Maui County was granted in May.
In 2020, Maui’s median household income was 40 percent of what is necessary to qualify for a home loan in the median price range. Jason Economou, government affairs director for the Real Estate Association of Maui, said this “speaks to a disproportionate cost of housing, but it also speaks to income issues.”
“In a healthy economy your median-income household is making 100% of what is necessary to qualify for the median house price,” Economou explained. “Here, wages have not increased significantly, but both rental and for-sale-housing prices have skyrocketed.”
Maui is like “a small town with the real estate market of a major metropolis like New York,” Honolulu-based developer Peter Savio said. “We have the expensive real estate, but without the infrastructure and without the high-paying jobs.”
Forty-year-old Kaina said he was laid off last September when Hyatt Hotels took over Hana’s main hotel, now the Hana-Maui Resort, in the midst of the Covid-19 shutdown. After 20 years as a hotel manager, he took a $15 per hour supervisor job at the Hana gas station, which is also operated by Hana-Maui Resort.
“A gallon of milk is $13,” said Kaina, “so I have to work nearly an hour to buy a gallon of milk. With four kids we nearly go through a gallon of milk in a day.”
“Becoming a homeowner is a big deal because it helps families build equity,” Savio explained. “For the family that rents, every time you get a raise, your rent probably went up just as much. The dollars aren’t here for locals to compete in the housing market.”
Hawaiʻi’s annual average hourly wages are among the lowest in the country, and despite low homeownership rates and the lowest incidence of student loan debt, the average resident owes $68,656 in debt, over $20,000 more than the national average. This means that Hawaiʻi residents’ debt-to-income ratio is disadvantageous in acquiring a mortgage loan compared to buyers from out of state who are likely to make more and owe less.
Kaina quickly found a job in Reno that paid more than three times his hourly wage at the gas station. He was just as swiftly pre-approved for a home loan, pending one month’s proof of employment at his new job, that would allow him to make an offer on a four bedroom, three bathroom house. In Hana, they were unable to make an offer on anything at all with the home loans they were approved for, which would have been difficult to pay off with Kawika’s hourly wage and Pohai’s salary as the front desk manager at a small boutique hotel in Hana.
Supply and Demand | In 2019, one in five of Maui households reported being overcrowded or “doubled up.” Meanwhile, 37.5 percent of units were sold to non-residents that year.
Put plainly by Cassandra Abdul, the executive director of housing nonprofit Na Hale O Maui, “the problem is supply and demand; The demand is very high, and the supply is very low.”
Within Maui County, households making less than 140 percent AMI constitute 54 percent of demand. The County’s workforce housing ordinance requires that 20% of housing be attainable for households earning under 140 percent AMI, meaning the deficit is baked into the housing plan.
In 2018, nearly 1,500 West Maui families earning $41,900 to $67,040 per year were in need of housing. That same year, only 33 houses under construction in Lahaina would be affordable for them. Market and luxury units, however, kept up with demand, with 474 units underway to meet an estimated 476 needed. This means that the income bracket with the highest demand, 51 to 80%AMI, was met with 6% supply, whereas the luxury and market bracket, 140%AMI and higher, was met with 99% supply.
Pohai and Kawika are not an anomaly. From 2020 to 2021, increases in housing and living costs worsened a tide of departures that pulled families with deep roots on Maui to lower cost zip codes where a manageable mortgage is realistic. In 2019 Hawaiʻi saw higher net-out migration per 1,000 inhabitants than any other state according to studies by University of Hawaiʻi’s Economic Research Organization.
Despite its status as a world-class travel destination, Hawaiʻi has experienced net population loss for the past decade, with thousands of residents, many of whom are Hawaiian, moving to states like California and Nevada every year. In 2019, 67,293 Hawaiʻi residents relocated to the mainland, citing personal, familial, economic and employment reasons.
Phil Garboden, expert on affordable housing and economics at University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, called population loss “a symbol of something deeply wrong.” In most places with high levels of attrition, it is highly visible when swathes of a population leave. “In Hawaiʻi we don’t see it as much. In Cleveland and Baltimore and Detroit, they lose population and properties sit there and get ugly and get boarded up and it feels very viscerally abandoned.”
In Hawaiʻi, rather than abandonment, “wealthier folks buy larger lots and over time, more and more land gets consumed by fewer and fewer people,” Garboden explained, “and that is why in some ways it is less visible here. So though we tend to lose population, we don’t see it as palpably.”
Maui County council member Mike Molina said that he is “concerned that there’s going to be a bigger and bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots” as wealthy buyers continue to propel prices, pushing out locals. “In a strange sort of way, it’s like a genocide of a culture that’s been here for a long time, and now younger generations may not be able to afford to stay here in the place they were born in.”
In July, as median home prices passed $1 million for a second consecutive month, Mayor Victorino received the final version of a $300,000 report by Hawaiian Community Assets that would hopefully illuminate a path towards a more equitable housing environment in Maui County.
The report states that Maui County’s current system, “operates on an assumption of scarcity of resources, creates competition among various interests, dictates short-term council policy making, leads to developer uncertainty, and keeps the county from taking the lead on planning healthy, vibrant and affordable communities”.
Jeff Gilbreath, executive director of HCA, said that “the deficit of trust and open communication between the groups positioned to solve the problem [developers, government officials and community activists] is a major impediment to progress”. If they are able to ally rather than deadlock, Gilbreath said, Maui stands a better chance of changing the narrative.
The plan largely transfers the role of generating affordable housing away from developers and into the hands of nonprofits. Rather than requiring developers to build 20% workforce housing, for-profit developers would relinquish 20% of the land they purchase. Nonprofits would then be tasked with building high-density, low-cost housing on that land.
Matt Bachman, director of Habitat for Humanity Maui, said that the plan’s recommendation that nonprofits build 1,000 homes per year sounded “truly aspirational.” “I don’t know how that’s possible, as we sit here today. As a capacity, I would have said 100 [attainable] homes a year would be amazing.” HFHM has built 64 homes since its inception in 1996.
Abdul, the executive director of Na Hale O Maui, said that substantial increases in funding would be necessary for Maui’s nonprofit housing sector to meet the goal of 1,000 homes per year. “If the entitlements and government approvals for development plans and infrastructure are granted at a reasonable speed — and that is a big if,” she added.
HCA determined that to reach the County’s housing goal, $380 million will be needed for infrastructure projects. Gilbreath said that in all ten exemplary high cost counties HCA studied for their report, community-serving infrastructure was the responsibility of local government. “Hawaiʻi, however, has made it the responsibility of the developer,” he explained.
Nonprofit and for-profit developers said the County’s lack of infrastructure investment reinforces the dearth of attainable housing. Infrastructure projects, from water and sewer to roads and electrical grid expansions are often foisted onto developers, adding up to 10 years to a project that might have taken five, according to Abdul.
State land trust Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) alone possesses 200,000 acres, much of which has not been doled out to Hawaiian families in need of homes or land, because infrastructure has not been built.
The DHHL Honokowai homestead in West Maui is slated to provide 700 homes to residents with 50% Hawaiian ancestry, but the department needs another $4 million dollars to complete water systems for the development.
Savio, who has built 6,000 affordable homes in Hawaiʻi without government subsidies, explained that when developers are responsible for infrastructure, “the cost is passed down to the renters and homebuyers, our community is paying to subsidize these guys [developers] but they aren’t getting anything back”.
Material and labor costs are among the highest in the nation, further inflating the price of development and construction. HCA urged County government to invest in materials that can be produced within the state, such as bamboo, hempcrete, and lumber from trees like the Albysia, which is widespread and invasive in Hawaiʻi.
Researchers and developers suggested making long-term investments in local production by financing a lumber mill, fast tracking structural build approval for locally grown bamboo and supplying grants to get local production pilots off the ground.
Gabe Johnson, the County council’s housing chair, said that though he agrees with the need to produce local materials, he was unaware of any notable plans to increase local production and move away from reliance on imported materials.
“These solutions were recommended in the sixties,” Savio remarked. “Nothing has changed.”
Ending the Cycle
Maui County’s housing problems show no sign of abating, but the upward mobility that homeownership affords is clear in the living examples of Maui residents living in affordable housing.
Four years ago, Shannon Iʻi was living in a studio apartment in Lahaina with her three kids. Her daughter’s bed butted up to hers and her son’s bed was stowed during the day to afford space. Hospital visits were frequent as her younger daughter’s lupus flared up and Iʻi’s income suffered as she juggled work, kids, and medical emergencies.
On a particularly stressful night, as her daughter was being medevaced to Oahu, Iʻi got a phone call that changed her life. She and her partner Michael Asami had been selected by Habitat for Humanity Maui to build a home at the new Kahoma development in West Maui.
Unlike her three siblings who had already moved to more affordable places like Oregon and Nevada, the new home would allow Iʻi to stay on the island where she was born. “I didn’t want to leave, I have a connection to this land,” Iʻi said, “but I was getting there. I am so grateful for where I am today.”
The four-year-process of navigating the homeownership with Habitat for Humanity Maui was a foundational shift for Iʻi and her family. “I could never have qualified for a loan. I wasn’t really taught about money management as a kid, you know, that credit was important or how to save,” she recalled. “My kids sat there while I signed the paperwork for my house, they learned about the responsibilities of homeownership before we even moved in—the cycle ends there.”
Iʻi and Asami’s home will cost them just under $400,000, and since the move in April, they have paid more than their monthly minimum. The mortgage for a home priced anywhere near the current market median would not be feasible for them, Iʻi said.
“To survive here is so hard, and to know that I have a home I can pass onto my kids and that I can open up to family is a miracle.”