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Hawaiʻi Island: The Wrong End of the Real Estate Boom

Real Estate Housing Sold Sign
Mark Humphrey/AP
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Real estate sales are booming statewide. Now, homebuyers fleeing high prices are heading down the island chain. Hawaiʻi Island housing inventory is being squeezed up and down the market, and that includes rentals to everyday people.

On Kauaʻi in June, the median home sale price swooped above $1.1 million, up 82% from last year. On the other end of the island chain, Hawaiʻi Island's median home sale price for June was $472,500, up 26%.

Jared Gates is Hawaiʻi Island Board of Realtors president and broker in charge at Big Island Homes and Land Company, based in Hilo. Gates says Puna is the hotspot for sales activity with new homes in the $300,000 to $500,000 range.

"A lot of the homes in the lower price range are on-island buyers, and folks that are moving here from other islands, which truth be told is pretty wonderful it's still affordable. We're seeing a lot of that."

While it's residential and vacant land that's selling in Puna and in Hilo, it's condos that are selling on the West side of the island in North Kona and South Kohala.

"We're all looking at affordable housing and the crunch that's being exacerbated by folks that are able to sell their homes on the mainland and roll their money over here and come in with cash at over asking price," Gates says.

"It's not as severe as I hear over on Oʻahu, where there are homes going for a $100,000, $200,000 over asking price," says realtor and broker Kapono Pa, the broker in charge at Savio Realty in Pāhoa. He says properties on the island are going for $10,000 to $20,000 over asking.

"It's not so crude but it's still driving the market up. In both the Puna and the Hilo area where you can't even get a showing within the first few days of it being listed because it's just booked solid," Pa said. "And they're going to receive multiple offers and the home is gonna sell for above the asking price. It's very hard for buyers in that kind of competition."

Na Kahua Hale O Ulu Wini is a full-service family assistance center in Kailua-Kona. In a Zoom call with Program Director Toni Symons and her outreach providers, HPR's Noe Tanigawa asked, "Finding affordable housing, how hard is that?"

They broke out laughing.

And the eviction moratorium hasn't helped everybody.

"We've had a huge amount of house sales here, sight unseen. That is the way we've found our landlords have gotten around eviction."

Taylor Quanan, Program Manager at the Ulu Wini Family Assessment Center says rentals are available but unaffordable for working class families.

"You see studios going for $1,500 to $1,600 and putting conditions of only one occupant," she said. "And no visitors."

"You see two-bedrooms going for $2,000 dollars now. These prices are more than the entire monthly income of the families we're working with," says Quanan.

"We have Housing Choice vouchers, we have emergency housing vouchers, we have emergency shelter funding we have rapid rehousing money--this is the most money we've ever had but we saw a unit that we know used to rent for $1,900 a month and it's up to $4,000," Symons says.

Landlords have no incentive to keep rents low, says Kaikea Blakemore, Community Development Specialist of Neighborhood Place of Puna, providing social services to houseless families. She says some landowners prefer not to rent at all.

"We have on the Big Island one of the highest housing vacancy rates in America. Our vacancy rate is at 20%. Whereas on Oʻahu it's around 15%, the national average is 12%. When you look at vacancy rates, we're seeing how folks are kind of hoarding housing in a way. And I'm not saying it's everybody," Blakemore says.

Blakemore says landlords get guaranteed rent, and other benefits through state and federal programs available now to keep renters in their homes. Some landlords simply expect social services to handle renters who are priced out of the market.

Currently, the federal eviction moratorium runs through July, and Hawaiʻi's eviction moratorium is set to expire on Aug. 6. There are programs in place with funds available. State and service providers are trying to engage as many landlords as possible to house more people and keep people in their homes.

Symons says outreach workers don't like what they're seeing ahead.

"We're preparing for those homeless camps like in the Depression, so how do we create an environment of safety because we're expecting, as a team, to see an increase in homeless families living in tents somewhere. We're not sure where, but we just feel that's coming."

Meanwhile, these service providers say safe overnight parking areas with hygiene facilities would be an immediate help for the many people who are living in their vehicles.

Hawaiʻi Island Board of Realtors President Jared Gates also appeared on The Aloha Friday Conversation on July 16, 2021. Listen to his complete interview below.

Jared Gates - July 16, 2021
Extended interview on The Aloha Friday Conversation

Program Director Toni Symons of Na Kahua Hale O Ulu Wini and Taylor Quanan of the Family Assessment Center also spoke with HPR's Noe Tanigawa on The Aloha Friday Conversation. Listen to their complete interview below.

Toni Symons and Taylor Quanan - July 16, 2021
Extended interview on The Aloha Friday Conversation

Corrected: July 19, 2021 at 7:41 AM HST
Kaikea Blakemore is the Community Development Specialist of Neighborhood Place of Puna, not the Executive Director as previously stated.
Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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