The Death of Affordability in Hawaii

Coming back to Hawaii – there are lots of obvious changes – there are now lots of really expensive trendy shops. Whole Foods is here and you can spend a fortune on groceries if you choose to, Bed Bath and Beyond, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, etc – the list goes on and on. There is … Continue reading “The Death of Affordability in Hawaii”

Coming back to Hawaii – there are lots of obvious changes – there are now lots of really expensive trendy shops. Whole Foods is here and you can spend a fortune on groceries if you choose to, Bed Bath and Beyond, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, etc – the list goes on and on. There is no shortage of expensive shops here – and seeing all of that, it’s easy to forget what used to be in those spaces. Same goes for restaurants – every famous chef you can think of has a great little corner location and all the little great cheap places that used to be here – they’ve all grown into bigger, multi-location restaurants – so you can find the same great food on all the different corners of the island. Here’s the thing though – the quality in those little hole in the wall places that have grown so big has gone down and the prices have gone up. And guess what all those fancy retailers have replaced? Affordable stores. And guess what’s happened to the rents in those little places where you could buy everyday things for living cheaply? They’ve gone up – so no more cheap sponges and coffee in Chinatown – no more cheap produce from Farmer’s Markets – no more dollar stores, no more Grocery Outlets, no more big affordable Daiea markets or semi-affordable Don Quixote – instead those stores are closed and moved off island and Don Quixote is no longer a bargain. Those who have stayed here through the last 10 years may not have noticed – like looking in the mirror each day and missing the ten years of wrinkles – but all the little shops that used to make it affordable to get by each day – those shops are gone. I notice it because I went looking for them – and instead found Chuck E Cheese and an upscale boutique or found higher prices than I get on Amazon. Safeway doesnt do $5 Friday on Oahu. This island has seen real estate prices skyrocket since the recession and at the same time these systemic changes – where affordable shampoo, rice, or toilet scrubbers are no longer available – they are stealing the pennies and dimes. Parking downtown costs $30/hr and an expired meter will cost you $35-$50 depending on where it happens. I’ve always said that Hawai’i was worth what it takes to live here – but I’m not sure about that any longer. It seems that the truth may well be that it has reached the point where paradise is only available to those who already have enough money to not worry about paying $15 for a jar of peanut butter.

Here is whats missing in Honolulu….and I don’t mean Not Native American Restaurants

I understand why…the cost of renting space here is insanely prohibitive…if you are going to have a space it has to be able to generate at least enough to pay for itself – i.e. Be a very profitable little enterprise anywhere else in the USA…but here in Honolulu, there is a big obvious gap (and I’m not talking about the complete and total lack of Native American restaurants anywhere…anywhere in the world) I’m talking about micro-museums – little owner passionate shops that focus on the insane hobbies or odd interests of a single person – Gordy’s Fairhaven Pharmacy in Bellingham, Washington or the Bug Zoo in Victoria, BC – the museum of bad record album covers or the museum of bottles bill collected. These little places are completely missing in Honolulu. Also missing are hobby and passion stores – meaning things like doll hospitals and Teddy Bear museums (there was one, but it was an animatronic Korean thing and it closed after three years, I never saw it).

The main reason, I believe, is that even a small dumpy space tends to cost at least $1000/month – and that requires quite a large volume of sales or admissions. Sure, on a rainy day there might be 1000 tourists looking for something to do that isn’t the Bishop Museum, the Honolulu Zoo or Aquarium, a bus tour, the Polynesian Cultural Center, or The Honolulu Museum of Art (can I please still call it the Academy of Arts?) but that means you need to collect $5 each from those 1000 people to cover your rent, utilities, insurance, the rent of your home, your home utilities, food, childcare, and other expenses. That’s a big risk in a city where 97% of days are beachworthy.

I don’t have a solution. Just like I don’t have an answer as to why there aren’t millions of Native American restaurants in North America but you can find pretty much every other ethnicity’s cuisine.

This Heartbreaking World

I want to start by saying that I don’t usually give homeless people or people that are begging anything except my compassion. We all know that story about the rich beggar with the garage full of undriven cars and the big house filled with unworn clothes – the beggar who sits on the corner asking for money. Or the drug addict or alcoholic who takes handouts to fuel their addiction. Or the professional beggars who find it more profitable than having a job. All those stories and well intentioned advice have led me through the years to refrain from giving to individuals. I sometimes donate to charities or drop a dollar here or there but generally, like almost everyone, I keep my distance from the homeless, the needy, the sick, the impovershed, and the dying. Aside from all of that, I struggle to pay all of our bills, I struggle to meet our obligations, and each dollar is too hard won to give it away. So you should know that before I write any more.

It’s impossible to ignore the suffering here on Oahu. Just like it’s impossible to ignore in Oakland and other places where the class divisions have grown so pronounced that there is nearly speciation between those who have and those who do not. We are forced to look at them as a different species – because the moment we stop doing so- the moment we let the wall down between us – it’s such a heartbreaking and awful feeling that it would be nearly impossible to let the world continue on as it is. They are ‘the homeless’ which carries a laundry basket of associated terms like drug addicts, mentally ill, alcoholics, criminal, unfit, and more. We put those terms on them – and we say sometimes ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ but we have to delineate the line – there is us and there is them. Us and them. They are not like us, we are not like them. There is no we, only us and them.

So, that’s what I’m writing about. Today, I went and got my car washed. I stopped and bought some spices at a health food store. I was sitting at a stoplight at a corner and there was one of them. Sun-baked skin like the back of a sailor’s neck, unbrushed grey hair frizzled like a sheeps coat in winter, dirt sticking to her clothing and sticking to the dirt on her clothing, second hand pants too big, rolled up and cinched with a rope. There she was sitting and staring at the ground, talking to herself, picking up small stones and throwing them at her feet, holding a sign “Please help. Homeless and Hungry” She was just like so many of them. Another of the homeless begging on a corner. She wasn’t any different than the last one you saw outside Walmart or next to McDonalds or sitting at the divider. And there I was, sitting in my car listening to the news on the radio and trying to ignore her, trying not to make eye contact, trying not to acknowledge her in any way. I caught myself devising a strategy if she caught my eye. I would smile, nod, and look away. I caught myself and I felt disgusted by me. I wanted to throw up all over myself. I knew what I was doing. I’ve done it so many millions of times. As she talked to herself and threw those pebbles at her feet, I told myself she was obviously crazy. I told myself that she might be one of the rich scammers or the lazy do-nothings. I told myself every lie that we all tell ourselves. None of them worked. I’d caught myself. I told myself that I didn’t have money to give away, that my money wouldn’t make a difference, and frankly, I don’t and it wouldn’t – not really.

But I couldn’t do it – I thought to myself “I’m going to give her $5” and I reached for my wallet, I opened it and I only found a $1 and a $10. The voice in my head said “Never mind, just move along” and then “Just give her the buck, you can’t give her the ten” but my better self, the financially stupid self, the compassionate human self was in the driver seat of my car. I took the ten, I rolled down the window and I said “Hey”

She looked up in surprise. She never would have caught my eye. Her eyes had never looked up. She looked at me and slowly began to push herself up off the ground to move towards the money I was holding out to her. She reached it and before she could say thank you or anything else it was me that spoke “I’m sorry for this world”. Our eyes were locked on each others – hers as blue as mine, as clear as mine, her mind as clear as mine, her humanness as clear as mine. “It’s a pretty messed up world,” she said in return.

The light was green. I rolled up my window and drove on. I wept all the way home.

It’s a pretty messed up world.

Moving is Hard Work….

Just in case I forgot to mention it – moving is really hard work.Mentally and physically it is extremely challenging and the past month, I’ve been working in a state of hyper-overdrive. The amount of stuff that has been accomplished seems insurmountable when I look back on it…this is just the major list…there were countless smaller tasks and heavy objects…

1) Selling our antique store
2) Selling our little community paper
3) Training the new owners and taking care of details
4) Finding a job in Hawaii before moving here
5) Finding an apartment in Hawaii before moving here
6) Coming to Hawaii on a brief trip to secure said job and apartment
7) Packing our lives up into a 10×6 trailer
8) Delivering the trailer to Oakland and then driving back (1000 mile trip)
9) Liquidating our entire household (except what we shipped in the trailer)
10) Selling our vehicles and other cargo trailers
11) Storing my Vanagon
12) Flying across the ocean with my wife and five year old
13) Buying a car
14) Renting a storage unit
15) Furnishing our apartment
16) Starting a new career
17) Selling the trailer
18) Selling at the Hawaii All Collectors Show
19) Unpacking
20) Registering my daughter for school
21) Changing my phone anddrivers license over to Hawaii
And the list goes on and on …. technically, to be fair, this process started at the very end of May, so it’s been about 40 days … I’m exhausted and my body and mind feel like they’ve been through a serious beating…thank god it’s time to get to work. My vacation is now almost over.

Fire At Marco Polo High Rise in Honolulu

I was driving on Kapiolani Blvd yesterday about 3pm when I noticed a lot of police and fire – I looked up and there was smoke coming from high up the building in front of me. It’s a building I used to have a friend that lived in – the smoke grew and then flames stared coming. The quality of my video is bad because I was just holding the phone up as I drove…absolutely awful. Three people died, a dozen injured, and probably at least a dozen apartments destroyed. When I got home to the much smaller building we live in, the first thing I did was a fire drill with Sophia. We went over where the stairs are, what to do if she can’t find us, and where to wait for us if she evacuates and can’t find us.

Much to my surprise, I like living in an apartment building. This is a reminder of one of the many dangers of it.

Hawai’i Problems and My Not So Simple Solutions

There are some big issues in Hawai’i. They were issues when I left in 2008 and they have gotten worse. In some cases much worse. Don’t get me wrong – I am plenty happy to have the bathwater with the baby – but as a logical person, I can’t help looking beyond band-aids and seeing some not very simple solutions.

1) Hawai’i has a car problem. There are so many cars on Oahu that the other day when I had my trailer in my assigned parking space it took me an hour and a half to find a parking space within a half mile of my apartment. This problem comes from many different sectors – and nearly every problem I will mention below has contributed and is connected to it. Housing is not affordable so you have three and four generations stacked in a single family home plus an ohana shack in the back yard – every adult has a car and the garage has been converted into an apartment so you have 3-10 cars on a property that was designed for one in the garage and one in the driveway. Add to that problem #2 – Hawai’i has a homeless problem – the worst in the nation and many of the homeless live in their cars – or try to. Then you have apartment buildings like ours – a l4 story builing where each apartment has 1-2 spaces and many of those have been sold or rented to earn the money necessary to live on. Then you have the military – problem #3. Every soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman has a car that they’ve had shipped over by the military – and their spouses have cars. Then you have tourism – car rental is a big business and tourists like to drive – huge lots of cars sitting and waiting to be rented and then looking for parking. As I remember, public transportation was pretty good in Hawai’i – but I can’t say for sure now because my job REQUIRED me to have a car – it was a condition of employment. The city and county are building a light rail system – which actually should help when it is someday completed- but they are going to have to take more drastic measures because car addiction is not easily solved. I don’t like these solutions any better than anyone would – but they have worked in other places. Creating car-free areas in urban congested zones to encourage commuting and using public transportation. Waikiki – car free. Downtown Honolulu – car free. University of Hawai’i – car free. Next are the less popular ideas – somehow banning the military import of personal vehicles and raising the price of car rentals – even less popular is the idea of raising the registration fee and taxes on vehicles – and offering buybacks on older and larger models. Nobody wants to have these things done – but the problem is far worse than it was and from what I can tell – this is the only way to make it better.

2) Hawai’i has a homeless problem. On this one, there is really only one solution – the humanistic solution. Every person should have the right to a safe, secure place to call home. Our greedy capitalist focused society has somehow made it ‘okay’ for there to be huge camps of people who have been left behind socially and economically. We pay huge amounts of money to house prisoners, we allow the ultra rich to buy huge properties and leave them vacant (in some cases entire apartment buildings). All of that needs to be said but ultimately – the homeless problem here and elsewhere is systemic and needs to be addressed at the root – housing is unaffordable here. Desirable real estate has gone so high that undesirable real estate has gone sky high and the rates that hotels and vacation rentals can bring have driven rents even higher. We have allowed the formation of a complex caste system to take place in our society where the higher castes can own unlimited amounts while the lower castes starve – this is considered ‘okay’. It’s not. Land that could be used for housing is gated and closed by the military, by golf courses, by country clubs, and by the ultra-wealthy.

3) Hawai’i has a military problem. There are nearly 100K military personnel here – and their dependents – wives, children, dogs, vehicles. The military long ago took all of the best lands on Oahu for itself. Pearl Harbor, Hickam Air Force Base, Bellows Field, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and more. These lands and beaches should be given back. Pearl Harbor and Hickam are a city that could house a huge population. I am not saying that the military should leave Hawai’i completely – but the amount of land and number of troops should be reduced greatly. This would reduce traffic, homelessness, rent and property values, and other problems.

4) Hawai’i has a golfing problem. I’m not a golfer. I admit it. Golf courses shut down huge areas of land to any other use thus cutting the non-wealthy off from using that land, the amount of water they use is obscene, and, frankly, they are elitist symbols of our caste system. Seriously, there are dozens of courses on Oahu. A large number of them are on military bases. Ban golf on Oahu or limit the number of courses to five and make them all public – or, if you are crying in your elitist cup of cat poop coffee right now – allow one private course but make them pay full retail for the water.

5) Hawai’i has a tourism problem. Tourism here is a mess. It’s expensive to come here and the lines are out of control. I know a lot of mainland people have never come here because (and I’m quoting) when they price compare, they get a better deal, less crowds, and cheaper flights when they go to Mexico. Air BnB and uber and Lyft are giving people a chance to earn with their cars and properties but driving the cost of housing up and the profits of tourism down. None of that is what I am referring to though. The tourism problem is that huge amounts of money get spent here and are promptly deposited in mainland and international banks by companies and corporations that are not based here. That is the tourism problem I am referring to.

So, in a nutshell – here is what I propose (if anyone that could make it happen is reading this):
1) Reduce non-essential troop levels and base sizes, require the military to provide transportation for troops stationed here, no personally owned vehicles (POVs)
2) Eliminate most golf courses and require full payment for water and land from those that stay, no sweet elitist deals
3) Ban POVs from congested urban areas and raise taxes and registration fees on urban POVs
4) Create a vacancy tax to drive hotel/housing rates lower – owners must pay a tax on unoccupied property or rooms – if they are using AirBnB or similar or are a hotel resort, the tax is nightly – for residential it would be monthly
5) House the homeless in vacant military housing, provide low skill employment to those capable of working
6) Require resorts and tourist business to be based in Hawai’i and to bank in Hawai’i.

Would these solve the problems? Of course not. Would new challenges arise? Of course. Would these be a good start? Absolutely.