In Hawaii, Locals Feel the Pinch of Retirees' Cash

Hawaii has long been the state of choice for wealthier Americans looking for a holiday home or a place to retire. But increasingly, native Hawaiians are complaining that this is squeezing them out of the housing market. Currently, the average Hawaiian makes $40,000 a year; the average house price is somewhere around $1 million.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Sand and sun have brought Hawaii millions and millions of visitors and those visitors have brought millions and millions of dollars to the state. For native Hawaiians, the success of tourism has meant lots of jobs.

But as Jesse Hardman reports from Maui, it has also brought gentrification to paradise.

JESSE HARDMAN reporting:

Native Hawaiian Wayne Peelua(ph) is trying to afford a life on modern Hawaiian terms. Peelua works seven days a week as a heavy equipment operator to pay for his modest two-acre homestead on Maui's burgeoning west side.

Mr. WAYNE PEELUA (Maui resident): You pay a price to live in Hawaii. You go to the store to buy food, it costs money. Everything is sky-high - rents. Even if I've got to do two jobs, I've got to work hard, you know? You pay the price to live in paradise.

HARDMAN: Wayne Peelua and his wife, Iris, are both native Hawaiians, and they're trying to keep pace with a neighborhood that no longer looks or lives like them. The Peeluas' street is lined with gated communities and condos, an increasing sight on Maui, where the median house costs around $1 million. This has left them with skyrocketing property taxes and the feeling that they are the outsiders. Iris Peelua.

Mrs. IRIS PEELUA (Maui resident): It's like the Bugs Bunny cartoon, you know, where Bugs Bunny, he never likes sells his little hole because, you know, you never like development. And then all the development came around him - the streets and everything - and Bugs Bunny was still there in his little hole, and I said that's where we are.

HARDMAN: The Peeluas try to live the traditional native Hawaiian lifestyle. They keep a small, single-floor house and a big yard filled with local staples like taro, bananas, sugar cane, and even a goat named Girly. And they open their house to family members who need a place to live. But the Peeluas are atypical, according to some increasingly worried local leaders, in that they are still in Hawaii.

Dr. JON MATSUOKA (University of Hawaii): You have this kind of cultural current that's occurring.

HARDMAN: Jon Matsuoka is a social work professor at the University of Hawaii.

Dr. MATSUOKA: People from Hawaii that really were steeped in the culture, socialized in the culture, are leaving the islands. In the meantime, you have an influx of people from the continent that don't necessarily have to buy into the culture.

HARDMAN: Matsuoka says Hawaii's tourism industry creates a ton of jobs, but all the best-paying positions go to mainlanders.

Dr. MATSUOKA: People in those positions are imported from elsewhere because they've got the skills, and you call it meritocracy, whatever you want to call it. But local people don't work their way up the ranks to assume those kinds of positions.

HARDMAN: According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, there are approximately 200,000 native Hawaiians still living in Hawaii, and well over half of them have household incomes below $50,000 a year.

But Maui County Housing and Human Services Chief Alice Lee says despite this, native Hawaiians aren't being left in the cold. She says they can stay if they want to.

Ms. ALICE LEE (Maui County Housing and Human Services): A native Hawaiian in Maui County has a wide variety of options with regard to affordable housing. But there are those who may not be fully aware of all the various programs and services available to those earning, let's say, 70 percent and less of median income. We try to get the word out, but we're not always able to reach everyone.

HARDMAN: Lee says the biggest asset native Hawaiians have is their access to Hawaii homelands, territory set aside in the 1920s to ensure future generations could stay on the islands. This housing provides reduced property taxes and long leases, but space is tight. One community has a 40-year waiting list to get in and housing prices in some homeland areas are starting to reflect the outside market.

HARDMAN: Iris and Wayne Peelua like to refer to their property as their own private Hawaiian homeland. Iris says she feels for the many native Hawaiians who are struggling. But she says the future of Hawaii being a place worth living rests on them finding a way to stick around.

Mrs. PEELUA: They're tired, they're frustrated with, you know, cost of living here. But it's about the same if you go to California and you're on the mainland. It's not like Hawaii. And so if you're going to stay here, you've got to make it happen.

HARDMAN: The Peeluas are considering embracing modern Hawaii a little more. They say they want to build a subdivision on their property, with the aim of making the apartments affordable for native Hawaiians and other locals.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman on Maui.

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