Life was closing in on Mike Wooten in 2012. He was laid off from his North Shore teaching job. Then he and his roommates were told to move out of their home within 30 days so the owner could move in. And Wooten’s car was dying, so he bought another one — but it turned out to be a lemon.
He took out a loan to buy another used vehicle that, along with debts from trying to fix the previous two cars, left him $14,000 in the red. He rented a Honolulu studio — a steal at $700 per month, plus utilities — but then found out his new teaching post was 23 miles away. And the first payments on school loans were due.
When a young teacher’s salary in the low-$40,000 range goes up against school and credit card debt, a car loan, gasoline bills, the rent on a studio apartment and the rest of the cost of living in the islands, the salary almost invariably loses. There’s a reason for that: Hawaii ranks dead-last nationally on teacher salaries, when adjusted for the cost of living.
Wooten did the math and knew he would sink deeper into debt every month. To avoid being crushed by it, the former U.S. Army sergeant bailed on the studio and moved into his black 1998 Toyota Tacoma truck with a red camper top. He was taking his life on the road.
It was an in-the-moment decision driven by desperation, he explained to me recently in a Kaimuki café. He would stem the bleeding in his finances and get back on his feet. But he was also tapping into archetypal American traditions: self-reinvention, becoming an explorer and embracing the freedom — and risks — of a life on wheels.
That well-trod path runs deep, from the old-school romanticism of Route 66 to countless Hollywood road movies and works of 20th century American literature. Let’s face it: We live in a country where the open road, and our ability to drive on it, often embody freedom, liberty and — for some — a key part of the pursuit of happiness.
During the year or so Wooten spent sleeping in his truck on streets, roads and fields around Oahu, he learned a lot about himself, his neighbors and life on the road here — and such experiences offer tips for people struggling to get around some of the relentless costs of living in the islands.
Hiding on the Road
When it comes to the homeless component of Hawaii’s housing crisis, it is hard to fathom why Hawaii doesn’t make it easier for people to live on wheels, whether in camper vans, trailers, Winnebagos or transportable mini homes.
The main arguments against such housing seems to be that it will create visual blight. The more harsh-tongued critics fear “trailer trash” that might undermine neighborhoods. Their decades-old vision of trailer parks reduces mobile living to run-down, dilapidated, and poorly planned and managed areas.
“I was nervous about being approached by someone, or the cops, so I used to turn all the lights off and sneak into the back of the truck really quickly, avoiding the headlights of passing cars.”
Even if we accepted their worst-case scenario imaginings, is the current situation really any better? It is difficult to argue that facilitating bases for mobile housing for some of Hawaii’s thousands of homeless residents — many of whom live in tents in neighborhoods like Kakaako, or directly on sidewalks in Chinatown — would be worse.
The fact is that plenty of people are already living in their vehicles. The fact that they can’t cook, clean or relieve themselves in most of them and that they rarely find spots where they are allowed to park and sleep in their cars, just makes their lives more precarious. And that leaves them more vulnerable.
“I was really anxious when I parked on the beach the first few nights,” said Wooten, who became, for a time, an education columnist for Civil Beat after his stint of transitory living. When I interviewed him recently, he spoke of the early adjustments to life on the road, especially the illegality of it. “I was nervous about being approached by someone, or the cops, so I used to turn all the lights off and sneak into the back of the truck really quickly, avoiding the headlights of passing cars.”
He quickly learned the tricks of life on the road. Wooten scouted out prime spots on Oahu, generally dark and hidden ones, where he could park his truck. It is best, he discovered, to never park in the same place for more than a night or two, to avoid drawing attention.
He learned the YMCA’s hours so he could get in for a shower before it closed. And the teacher found cafes where he could socialize, or just hang out for many hours, since he had no practical living space of his own. Before long, he came to recognize the numerous other vehicles that people were living in. And over time, he realized, no one really cared that he was sleeping in his truck.
Well, almost no one. Late one night he was sleeping in the truck near Barbers Point Beach when he was awoken by a “white light blinding my face.”
A gruff police officer barked at him: Wake up!
Bleary, Wooten says, he held his hands up where the cop could see them. The officer asked him for ID. Tensely, Wooten told the officer he was going to reach for his ID, but he made sure to keep his hands visible.
Asked if he had a job, Wooten explained that he taught English and film at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, which seemed to strike a chord with the cop, who took Wooten’s ID with him to run a check on it.
The officer returned, gave Wooten back his ID and asked, “Hawaii teachers aren’t paid too well, are they?” Then the cop suggested that Wooten move his truck to a location off the road near the Kapolei courthouse where he could park, alongside other cars people lived in.
Wooten decided not to go there. Instead he continued to sleep in different areas around the island because by living without paying rent and utilities, he was beginning to get back on his feet, financially speaking. Still, he knew everything could fall apart if something happened to his truck, which had more than 160,000 miles on the odometer.
Late one night, after returning from an off-island trip, a friend picked him up at the airport and drove to where he had parked. The truck was gone. Wooten had lost his transportation and his home. He panicked. They drove around in search of the truck, ultimately discovering it had been towed.
They eventually located the vehicle and, after a stop at an automated bank machine for cash, recovered it. Wooten was home again.
As long-time residents of Hawaii know all too well, exploring the islands on wheels isn’t quite like speeding across America’s vast open spaces. Despite the luscious scenery, if you stay on the road long enough, you are eventually going to be driving around in circles.
Similarly, the freedom to cruise on the most populous islands sometimes devolves into a less inspiring crawl on clotted roads during rush hours.
And unlike in the other 49 states, the archipelago nature of the islands — along with the lack of a statewide ferry system — means that there is no such thing as a remotely fluid road trip around the state.
And yet, we’re still somehow smitten with the road. The proof? In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Oahu has nearly as many vehicles as residents.
In these car-culture dominated islands where land prices are too high for many people to afford to buy or, in some cases, even rent a decent place, combining the housing crisis with our car culture could just offer a partial solution. For one, it would allow people to disassociate housing from the pricey earth beneath their lodging.
Wooten’s experiences aren’t the answer — living in the back of a truck wears people down physically and psychologically, especially when they fear getting busted by authorities and lack alternatives. But there are lessons to be gleaned from the experiences Wooten shared, to create a better template for going mobile.
Actually, such templates already exist.
The last decade has seen an upsurge in creativity around homes that are on wheels or that can be towed on them and parked in different places. Even mobile home and trailer parks are being re-jigged in some cases, partly by post-Great Recession culture that involves living smaller but well and with great creativity, and partly because it is more affordable.
Forget the flimsy plastic mobile home and camper interiors that got style tips from old airline economy-class sections. That sort of mobile living is gradually becoming a thing of the past.
We may need to go beyond thinking outside the box; we may need to put the box on wheels.
Around America and far beyond, people are enjoying a mobile life in elegantly crafted homes, often with wood frames, that can be parked on land for short or long periods of time. It is part of the “tiny homes” movement across America, including here in Hawaii, that I wrote about recently as a partial antidote to Hawaii’s housing crisis.
While some rolling homes are cheap, others aren’t just for the poor. Some are downright decadent. But they have several things in common. They are far smaller than traditional homes and take up far smaller plots of (precious) land when they are parked.
In some urban settings around the U.S., like Boneyard Village in Washington, D.C., there are clusters of little homes on wheels packed onto plots of land that on Oahu would be too small to build even an ohana unit, and yet the homes seem cozy and charming, rather than boxy and soulless. Trailers carrying tiny houses have added to the housing market in places like San Luis Obispo, California and Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon.
Most importantly, these rolling homes are generally many times cheaper than actual houses. They can be plopped down in a yard, parked on the edge of a beach, stationed in a campground and moved to safer ground head of an incoming hurricane, tsunami or lava. Such homes can also be used to create temporary communities in areas that are awaiting decisions on long-term development.
Whereas an acre of land in the islands might house from one to four homes, depending on zoning, tiny home advocate Erik Blair said it can handle eight micro homes with eight to 24 people in them.
Blair, who is working to create a non-profit called “Project Eden” that is slated to include a tiny house eco-village, says that ideally such areas should include a central community center with bathrooms and showers, solar power, laundry facilities, water catchment, a refuse dumpster, a covered area for work tables, a meeting space and education and farm activities.
None of this is to say that rolling homes are an ideal solution to the housing crisis (or to lodging tourists). But with land prices continuing to rise and with many incomes essentially stagnant, we need to consider new short- and long-term solutions. If we don’t, part of the next generation of people with working- and middle-class incomes — people who are necessary to keep the islands functioning on a very practical level — will have no place to live.
Just look at the trends. In 2005 rent consumed just over 20 percent of Hawaii tenants’ household incomes. In less than a decade that has since risen to 25 percent, as U.S. Census numbers show. A troubling number of people are deemed “financially fragile” because their rents consume more than 35 percent of their income. Fifty percent is hardly rare.
So we can more frequently build higher into the air, rezone more agricultural land to make it residential, and build smaller — all of which may happen to some extent in the coming years. But to respond to the crisis in the near future, we may need to go beyond thinking outside the box; we may need to put the box on wheels.
Building a Better Box on Oahu
Look carefully around the islands and you’ll notice some mobile housing. In addition to people living in their cars, there are some silver Airstream trailers in people’s yards, and Winnebagos and camper-vans on the roads. Tourists sometimes rent vans, including some with pop-tops, to sleep in.
The attention-grabbing vehicle home is like a mini “Aulani on wheels,” he says. “It makes camping homey.”
Brandon Nishiki, 46, a Kaimuki local, has built a prototype for a different vision of a life on wheels. One day while sipping cheap beer with friends in his garage, he decided to build his own customized trailer.
The homebuilder crafted something special. His sturdy 98-square-foot trailer is made of wood. It contains a toilet, a television, a kitchen with a microwave and blender, and a full-sized (inflatable) bed. A ukelele sits on a wallpapered and insulated wall. The trailer even has hurricane straps. Outside, in addition to the 60-square-foot foldaway deck, there is a hose for showering.
The whole trailer, which is the height of a basketball hoop and fits into a normal-sized parking space, cost him $23,000 for the high-grade materials alone, not including his skilled labor.
This trailer is a luxury prototype in Nishiki’s mind. He put everything into it, but he could build other trailers much more affordably, especially if they didn’t need to be as mobile — and stable — on their trailer base.
Nishiki, who lives in a house in the hills above Kaimuki, uses the trailer for fishing — sometimes he parks it right on the water and casts the line from his trailer patio. “People come and ask questions non-stop when I set up shop somewhere,” he said. “A lot of UH students say: This is bigger than my studio.”
The attention-grabbing vehicle home is like a mini “Aulani on wheels,” he says. “It makes camping homey.”
And because it is on wheels, Nishiki doesn’t need a housing permit for it; it is regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles on Oahu.
The trailer is for sale on Craigslist. Nishiki said he has received a number of queries from Big Island residents who have inquired about living in it while they build their own home, suggesting there is already some demand for more affordable versions of it.
None of those calls came from Wooten, who eventually got his own place and stabilized his life, even if he now wrestles with the full cost of living on Oahu.
But the man who garnered attention as Oahu’s “homeless teacher” found some inspiring moments on the road. “When I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day, I’d go to the North Shore,” he recounted. One night, he said, “I was setting up my camper around 1 in the morning and there was bioluminescence for about five (wave) breaks on both sides, and stars in the sky.”
In such moments, he suggested, the world that was closing in on him suddenly seemed big again. (Additional reporting by Chad Blair)
The owners of this rolling home in Wisconsin used to move around every day or two to avoid breaking the law. They are finally moving home.
Read our ongoing Living Hawaii series and join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in the islands to continue the conversation and discuss possible solutions.