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Poor Little Rich Isle

Has the Price of Paradise Gotten Too High For Kauai’s Young Adults?

In April, Oprah Winfrey was casually chatting with guest and fellow billionaire Donald Trump on her hit TV show, when she offhandedly mentioned that anyone who could afford to should buy land in Hawaii. "Let's face it, God ain't making any more of it," half-joked America's reigning talk-show host. The remark struck a raw nerve with 53-year-old Kauai resident Aaron Murakami, a local construction worker and father of three.

IT AIN’T ALL ROSES: Flower shop owner Erika Sakamoto says that without parental or family assistance, building or buying a home on Kauai is out of the question for most young adults. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

"As if land isn't expensive enough on Kauai, now Oprah's on TV telling more rich Mainlanders to come buy it up. Drive up the prices, drive out the locals," gripes Murakami. "I not kidding. It's so expensive, our kids no can afford to live here anymore, so they move to the Mainland, while Kauai turns more and more into an island of rich, part-time residents who don't know jack about preserving our local culture."

He continues on like this for a while, and it becomes evident that while the influx of Mainland buyers onto the island is a source of frustration for Murakami, he is mainly concerned about the future of his island. He's worried that, among other things, pricey real estate and a lack of quality jobs is making it increasingly difficult for Kauai's young adults to make a living there. He's afraid that the price of paradise is escalating too high, not only for his kids, but also generations to come. And he's not alone. Talks with other Kauai natives reveal a growing despondence about the lack of jobs, a vanishing culture and ridiculously expensive housing.

MAD HOUSE MARKET

By now, Kauai residents are hardly sticker shocked by the exorbitant real estate prices on the island. But it's still alarming that the minimum household income necessary to afford the median sales price of a single-family home on Kauai is a staggering $84,000. Using a generally accepted method for calculating mortgage payments, and assuming a 5 percent down payment, with a 6 percent interest rate, homebuyers would need to earn $7,000 to $7,500 each month to afford a mortgage on a $425,000 home.

Real Estate Median Sales Price
(In thousands)
Source: Hawaii Informative Services

"Housing is tough right now for young people, because prices have soared so high," says Tad Miura of Kauai Realty, who's been in real estate for 25 years. "I sell low-scale homes, which used to be $150,000. Now it's $300,000. So no matter how low the interest is, they're still making payments around $1,500 or $2,000. It's put the younger generation out of touch with being able to financially purchase any kind of housing."

That it has. While no one on the island tracks home sales by age, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a Realtor, for that matter), to pinpoint where most of the island's youth are residing. A simple query of locals between the ages of 20 and 40 reveals a short order of housing options islandwide for Kauai's youth. Single mother Tiffany Gammon rents a modest, two-bedroom house in Koloa for $1,400 a month. Newlyweds Crystal and Josh Walters, who both work two jobs and have no children, live at home with her parents near Lihue. And Candice Iida, who was her class valedictorian, and was courted by Fortune 500 companies upon graduating from Harvard University six years ago, now lives right where she started - virtually rent-free at her parent's house in Kapaa.

"Honestly, most of the people I know are getting help from their parents, whether they're living with them, renting from them or building on their dads' empty lots," says 29-year-old Erika Sakamoto. She says she and her husband, Kevin, are really fortunate to be living rent-free in one of her dad's vacant houses. "My mom always used to tell us we had a place in Hanamaulu if we wanted it, and I used to tell her that's the last place I'd ever live," says Erika, referring to Hanamaulu's reputation as a socioeconomically disadvantaged area. "But after a while, reality hits, and it's like, how often do you get a free house? But we've made it a home and we're actually really happy now." Although it's not the ideal situation, it affords the Sakamotos the opportunity to run their respective businesses (he owns an automotive machine shop, she owns a flower shop) and save money to one day build a house on either his or her parents' land.

Real Estate Sales Volume
(In Millions)
Source: Hawaii Informative Services

Jeff Mira, who, as manager of Honsador Lumber on Kauai, has his finger on the pulse of homebuilding activity, says parental or family assistance is practically the only way younger people are able to build and own homes these days. "There has been a slight influx of younger homebuilders over the past two years, due to low interest rates, but that's because they've been given land or are getting some financial support from relatives," says Mira. "Otherwise, it's just flat-out too expensive for them to do it on their own. It's almost impossible. I've seen it happen, but it's few and far between."

BRAIN DRAIN

As if housing weren't enough cause for distress for Kauai's young adults, they've also got to contend with a tight, limited job market. The island simply doesn't offer much in the way of good-paying, challenging jobs. A significant portion of the island's youth make a living doing retail sales, parking cars or waiting tables. Admirable professions, sure, but why cart the kids off to college only to have them return to Kauai to serve drinks?

A state-sponsored Web site, Hawaii Workforce Informer (www.hiwi.org), compiles labor-market statistics for Hawaii. Its list of Kauai's 10 largest occupations sheds light on the pressing need for a more diversified economy. A majority of the jobs on the list - retail sales, housekeeping, food service and groundskeeping, for example - revolve around the island's tourism industry. And with nearly 1 million visitors flocking to the island last year, it's no wonder why. Still, a greater diversity of professional options would mean more opportunities and more money for Kauai's youth.

Tracy Hirano, Kauai branch manager of the state's Workforce Development Division (WDD), says it's a chicken-and-egg situation: You won't attract skilled workers if there aren't good jobs, and vice versa. "A lot of times kids will come home after they graduate from college and look around for a job, but they can't find anything in their field, so they go back to the Mainland or move to Oahu," he says.

That's what happened to 28-year-old Irma May Baptiste, who was born and raised on Kauai. Despite a desire to move back home after earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Hawaii Pacific University, Baptiste felt efforts to find a decent job on Kauai would be futile. She remained on Oahu and eventually worked her way into her current position, marketing specialist with CB Richard Ellis. She still yearns to move home, but isn't willing to regress in her career.

Hotel Occupancy Rate and Room Rates
Source: PKF Hawaii

"If I want to stay in commercial real estate, I don't have many options on Kauai. What am I gonna do, rent out Kukui Grove? Sell maybe one building a year, if I'm lucky? I'd almost have to take a step backwards in order to move back home," quips Baptiste. "You know, I remember if you worked at Liberty House on Kauai, you were the bomb diggity. Over here, yeah right! It's not a status thing at all, but you can get a retail job in a heartbeat on Oahu. On Kauai, you gotta wait till somebody make (dies), retires or gets fired. That's what the options are like for career opportunities on Kauai."

But it isn't just the types of jobs that discourage jobseekers. The overall number of jobs is equally disheartening. In May, the WDD showed just over 300 jobs in its databank of job listings. "You figure, each year 200 students graduate at each of the three high schools. That's 600 graduates a year," notes Hirano. "If they all decided to come back, there's no way Kauai could absorb that many workers."

Add to that paltry salaries and an inflated cost of living, it's no wonder housing is so far beyond the reach of most young residents. Edie Ignacio, employment specialist at the Workforce Development Division, estimates the average salary for college-educated employees is $8 an hour. That's less than $17,000 per year. "I hear the average income to survive on Kauai is about $11 an hour," says Ignacio. "That's two incomes right there, or two or three jobs for one spouse, while the other one takes care of the kids."

MONEY DON'T MAKE KAUAI GO 'ROUND

So housing is sparse and job opportunities dismal. To those born and raised there, Kauai is still home, and there's simply no place like it. With all of its obstacles and imperfections, there is still no shortage of young Kauaians eager to make a living on the Garden Isle they call home. In 2000, Kauai's 20- to 44-year-olds comprised 32 percent of the total population, and were the largest demographic group on the island, according to the U.S. Census.

ROUGH TRADE: Employment Specialist Edie Ignacio with the State’s Workforce Development Division on Kauai, searches through a database of 300 jobs, hoping for a match for expectant job seeker Landon Scribner. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

Baptiste, the marketing specialist, is just one person in that demographic currently living on Oahu, awaiting the day when she'll be able to move back. There are countless others there, and on the Mainland. "There's a group of us living and working in Honolulu who commiserate over [moving back] all the time," says 1984 Kapaa High School graduate Ku'ualoha Ho'omanawanui, a lecturer and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "It's our mantra."

Ho'omanawanui and her husband, who each work two jobs, have a combined salary of around $50,000. She fears a pay cut, combined with the higher cost of living on Kauai, would put their family in the red. Even Baptiste and her airline-pilot boyfriend, whose combined income is roughly $100,000, say it'd be difficult to make a go of it on Kauai. "I already consider us frugal, and Oahu isn't even as expensive as Kauai," she says.

So how do so many other young adults make it on Kauai, with, in most cases, a lot less? "I honestly don't know how most people do it," says Iida, the Harvard graduate and manager of Bank of Hawaii's Kapaa Branch, who took three consecutive pay cuts in order to move back and be closer to family. "At a certain point, you take stock of what's important to you, and then you make sacrifices from there."

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