- Special Projects
Scott Young, his wife and their two young children love Hawaii.
As their kids bounced with abandon on the neighbor’s trampoline in the hills above Kaimuki on a recent afternoon, Scott and Nora admired the lowering sunlight stretching out on the Pacific Ocean beyond downtown Honolulu. Such moments go to the core of why they live here, and embody what they will soon lose.
In a few weeks — barring a dramatic turnaround — they will be gone. On Oct. 15, they will catch an airplane to Houston, the nation’s best city when it comes to creating jobs. They will settle, temporarily, in the house of Nora’s brother and his own nuclear family in The Woodlands, 32 miles from the big, booming metropolis.
While some people might move from Honolulu to a master-planned community in Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas only after lining up a high-paying gig, the Youngs have no such certainty. But their apprehension about moving to the Lone Star State pales in comparison to their struggles to earn enough money to afford even a frugal life in Hawaii.
“We were hemorrhaging money,” explained Nora. “The bleeding was not gradual. It felt like hemorrhaging.”
The contrast is so stark that they are moving, with children ages 5 and 7, during the school year without job guarantees or clear leads on housing. In fact, they are likely to have little more than the warm welcome of Nora’s brother’s family when they touch down in Texas.
But after nearly two years struggling in Hawaii, they do find comfort in the idea of a more dynamic and diverse economy, better work prospects, more valuable salaries and the knowledge that their money will go much further.
In some ways, the story of the Youngs is a cautionary tale for middle class people who contemplate moving to — or back to, in the case of former locals — Hawaii.
Census Bureau numbers released in 2013, showed that 6,364 more people left Hawaii for the mainland than moved here the previous year.
David Young of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism said Hawaii has no information about why people give up on life in the state — because it doesn’t ask. But those who go are mostly “young people who are leaving for (better paying) jobs, or who thought they wanted to live in paradise, but found it too expensive,” he theorized.
Hawaii has very low unemployment, just 4.3 percent — sixth lowest in the nation. Texas’s rate is 5.3 percent, and falling. The main difference is how far the money that people do earn takes them.
“In Houston,” Nora says, “their cost of living and pay scale are commensurate. Here it is so out of whack, it is amazing people can survive.”
Nora Yolles-Young has roots in Hawaii. Her mother resides in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighborhood, and her sister, who lives on Maui, pitched the Youngs hard to get them to move from Durham, North Carolina, back to the islands. She sent Nora and Scott job listings and highlighted how they could live near family, the ocean and nature. The kids could bask in the spirit of Aloha that Nora grew up surrounded by.
Nora’s late father, a doctor, did his medical residency here at St. Francis, and Nora and her twin brother were born here. After a stint in Victoria, Texas, Nora’s father joined the military and was stationed at Tripler medical center. Later they moved to Maui, where Nora grew up.
Through Nora’s mother, Scott got a tip about a job as a fiscal officer in grants administration for the University of Hawaii. Ready for a more satisfying life than the one they led in North Carolina, he applied — and learned he would be getting an offer.
The Youngs were not naïve about the cost of living in Hawaii. The family had visited in recent years, so they knew it was expensive; they just didn’t know how that might translate in daily life.
The Tax Foundation determined that, in terms of spending on housing, $62.89 dollars in the Honolulu market is equal to $111.98 in Texas.
They decided Scott wouldn’t take the job for less than $70,000. The offer came in low, around $54,000, which was about equal to what he was earning in Durham, a city with a far more affordable cost of living. Initially, said, Nora, “We were like, no way!”
But the seduction of Hawaii and being near family sank in. They figured they might be able to finagle things to get the dream to work out. Nora’s nascent business as a life coach would bring in additional income, likely increasing as she got more established. They thought there must be ways to make their money stretch far enough.
Scott accepted the job with UH and they moved in, initially, with Nora’s mother and her husband. It is rarely ideal for middle-aged parents — Nora is 42, Scott is 54 — to move in with in-laws for financial reasons, but they saw no alternatives in Hawaii. The plan was to move out as soon as their finances allowed it.
They lived there, in what became a three-generation home, for more than a year and a half. Nora earned about $10,000 that first year through her business.
While there, they paid just $300 in “rent” to help cover things like utilities. They would, they believed, save money and then recover their independence.
With Nora’s mother’s house feeling cramped, Scott and Nora found a rental on the ground floor of a two-story house a few blocks away.
The move made sense. Nora’s business was starting to get moving — in her second year in Hawaii she grossed about $17,000 — and there was the promise of increasing income.
The landlords, who were friends, gave them a reduced rate of $1,800 for the two-bedroom unit in exchange for some yard work.
Besides, they would also save on some childcare costs since their landlords had two children of a similar age, and the kids ended up hanging out together.
But Scott and Nora quickly began to grasp how much less their take-home income was worth in Hawaii, and that other quirks could make it disappear altogether.
When Scott was hired, UH was in the midst of rolling furloughs. So the $54,000 job offer only amounted to $51,000 in actual salary.
(Last July, the furloughs finally ended and he got a raise that brought his salary up to $59,000, which amounted to, Scott said, “a small help.”)
They also faced Hawaii’s high local and state taxes on the poor and middle class, and nearly $10,000 in medical insurance, which is crucial for their son who has suffered seizures in the past.
In the end, their combined incomes were about equal to what Scott earned in Durham, but residents of Honolulu pay more than twice as much in rent and three and a half times more for utilities than people in the Youngs’ former hometown, according to data compiled by the cost-of-living comparison website, Numbeo.com.
The fact that income does not mean the same thing in different places is highlighted by another statistic: The average monthly disposable salary, after taxes, in Durham is 41 percent higher than in Honolulu.
After taxes and medical insurance, Scott brought home about $3,200 per month. Subtracting the rent, that left $1,400 that the family of four could count on.
Nora’s income came in fits and starts, she explained. When she got a partial or full payment from a client, “we’d do special things” — like fixing the car, buying a piece of furniture the family needed or getting new clothes for the kids.
“I used to say, jokingly, ‘Nora, why don’t we move to Houston,’ and she said, ‘No effing way.’ She was repulsed.” — Scott Young
But the family took another blow when Hawaii changed the admission age for children entering kindergarten. Their son Sam, who is 5 years old, was one of thousands of children blocked from public school because his birthday is four weeks after the new deadline. Instead of free public school kindergarten, Nora and Scott would have to pay $5,000 for child care for another year.
The family was living paycheck to paycheck, hoping that Nora’s business would grow fast when, in mid-August, Scott received a letter from his employer. He discovered that his position at UH was being eliminated in a matter of weeks.
Scott sent out a flurry of job resumes to people in his field, but he heard nothing back over the next two weeks.
A financial planner who offered Scott and Nora free guidance advised them to sell their Durham home, which they had rented out. The problem was that the real estate market in that area hadn’t recovered, so they would take a loss, rather than letting their tenant continue to pay the mortgage. Instead, they cashed out one of Scott’s retirement funds.
Nora’s brother, who is a pilot based in Texas, has long been “plying us with possibilities about work there,” Scott said. Life would be so much easier in a city that ranks second in the nation, after nearby Austin, when it comes to creating middle class jobs.
“I used to say, jokingly, ‘Nora, why don’t we move to Houston,’ and she said, ‘No effing way.’ She was repulsed.”
But after the layoff notice, they quickly began to consider the idea. Nora’s brother said the house would be ready for them to move as soon as they wanted. On Sept. 5, they gave up on Hawaii.
And unlike their challenging arrival in Hawaii, the Youngs expect their transition in Texas to last a few months.
The more dynamic jobs market aside, if the Youngs end up with the same take-home pay in Texas that they had in Honolulu, would their lives be easier?
“We didn’t come here stupid about the cost of living. We had visited. But it is different when you actually have to live it.” — Scott Young
The answer, from a look at the numbers, is undoubtedly yes. In Houston, a cross-section of expenses that adds up to $4,803 costs $5,700 in Honolulu, according to according to Numbeo. Consumer prices are 13 percent lower in Houston, rents are 21 percent lower and grocery prices are 28 percent lower. Those and other differences add up to purchasing power being 46 percent higher, according to the site’s calculations.
In the real world, that translates to a fast-food combo meal being, on average, a buck cheaper in Houston. A half-liter of domestic draught beer costs $1.50 less and bread is $2 cheaper per loaf. A dozen eggs cost 41 percent less and if you buy two pounds of chicken breast, you save nearly $5.
But the greatest expense for the vast majority of families is rent. The Tax Foundation, using Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, determined that, in terms of spending on housing, $62.89 dollars in the Honolulu market is equal to $111.98 in Texas. (This is a city-to-state comparison, but Houston is far less expensive than Honolulu, even if the foundation doesn’t have specific numbers for the greater Houston area.)
All prices aside, moving to Texas will instantly save the Youngs $5,000. Sam is guaranteed immediate access to kindergarten there.
“We realized,” Nora said, “staying is stupid.”
They set the clock for their departure ticking by giving notice to their landlords upstairs. It was best, they concluded, to spare another month’s rent and use the money to buy one-way plane tickets out of here.
Within days, they were selling their furniture and giving away other possessions. They broke the news to their children, and have been taking them to various beaches while they can. Nora has also carved out time for some late afternoon exercise around Diamond Head to clear her head.
“Psychologically, living in a place that is so abundant and not feeling financially abundant messes with you. It is a little bit like being in prison. It is a pretty prison, but it is depressing.”
She noted the contrast between the lives of Hawaii’s “multimillionaires, who are financially free,” and “the people earning a regular living who, on the mainland, might be fine.”
“When you live in Hawaii, you have to believe in the entire dream,” Nora said. “You have to continuously invest in that dream. If you don’t sustain it, if all of the threads of that dream aren’t unified, it will give. You will fall through.”
Her husband put it in different terms. “I’m totally sad to leave. I would love to stay if I could afford to,” said Scott. “But it isn’t the time.”
Ultimately, he feels relieved and has already applied for a job with the University of Texas.
“Yes, it is hot and humid, and it isn’t necessarily as in line with our political orientations — and those things held us back at first — but now we don’t care about that.”
“We didn’t come here stupid about the cost of living. We had visited. But it is different when you actually have to live it. You think you’ll be able to make it work, but the reality is: ‘Dang!’ After a while, you realize it is impossible.”
The Youngs don’t plan on staying in Texas for good. They hope to eventually move on to the Bay Area, which is one of the most expensive regions in the country. But it is less expensive than Oahu.
Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it.
If you have a personal story that you would like to share for our cost-of-living Connections section, please write to email@example.com.
And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.