In the weeks before the Yolles-Young family bailed on high-priced Honolulu, gambling that they could restore their finances in Texas, they explained that their “hemorrhaging” savings left them no choice.

The lifestyle in Texas didn’t draw Nora and Scott and their two young children; but they had a relative there who offered to take the family in while they got back on their feet, and they saw a prospect of better incomes and more buying power.

They were desperate to feel like they were no longer stuck in Honolulu’s “hamster wheel on turbo,” as Nora puts it.

After touching down at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Oct. 17, 2014, though, the family that had lived in one of America’s most naturally beautiful states was more than a little troubled by the first sights beyond the airport.

Nora’s brother drove them passed treeless streets where fast-food chains and strip malls sprouted among storage facilities, bringing to mind visions of a megalopolis’ industrial wasteland zone. What had they had gotten themselves into?

“Scott and I were looking at each other, like: ‘Crap!’” Nora recalls.

Nora Yolles-Young and her husband Scott Young with their two kids, Sam and Makena in Honolulu on September 18, 2014
Nora Yolles-Young and her husband Scott Young with their two kids, Sam and Makena, in Honolulu on Sept. 18, 2014 — less than a month before they moved away. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The last time I saw Nora, Scott and their two young children in Honolulu, their small ohana unit home was nearly empty and she was wrestling with practical but wrenching questions: What possessions does a family really need to keep when they are leaving Hawaii because they can’t afford it?

The family decided to ship the barest of necessities to Texas from their small and discounted two-bedroom place on a hill in Kaimuki.

When I arrived, Nora was on and off the phone, selling key pieces of furniture and, mostly, giving things away — including children’s toys.

“And I think we were trying to sear the images of Hawaii into our minds, of the water and the sun.” — Nora Yolles-Young, on her family’s last visit to Kaimana beach before they moved away

After Scott was unceremoniously laid off from his job as a grants administrator at the University of Hawaii, the family decided their best option was to leave, and quickly. Scott told me he might be able to get another job that would allow them to hold on in Hawaii longer; but he didn’t see any way for his family to get ahead. They didn’t want to tread water; they needed a future.

So they left a seemingly idyllic life. No more using the upstairs neighbors’ large trampoline with its epic view of Diamond Head. No more soft Pacific sand in their toes. No more painting-like sunsets on the blue ocean. No more talk of the aloha spirit.

“We were hemorrhaging money,” Nora said back then. They couldn’t afford the “paradise tax” — that assortment of factors that makes life in the islands so expensive — particularly given that they earned a little less than the median household income on Oahu.

They took a final, late afternoon visit to Kaimana Beach, in the shadow of the Natatorium, where their children Makena, 7, and Sam, 5, frolicked about. Nora and Scott contemplated the sky and the sea.

“And I think we were trying to sear the images of Hawaii into our minds, of the water and the sun,” Nora says via Skype. “I mean, there’s nothing like it.”

In the 15 months since we published their story, a lot of people have asked how things turned out for the Yolles-Youngs. What is it like to move from Honolulu to Texas with two young children and no clear plan? Did things work out? Or did the family’s slide continue in a less beautiful place?

And, more broadly, if their experiences in Honolulu amounted to a cautionary tale for middle-class families contemplating moving to — or, in Nora’s case, back to — the islands, what did their departure say?

Life After Hawaii

As Nora’s brother drove her family toward their new life north of Houston, her mind filled with observations. The tall housing towers of Honolulu seemed a far-off memory in sprawling Texas, where there isn’t the same need for densely packed urban housing.

On Interstate 45, Nora felt destabilized by local drivers zipping along at speeds 20 miles per hour faster than on H-1 in Honolulu.

After 45 minutes, they reached the home of Nora’s brother in The Woodlands, a small master-planned community completed in the early 1970s. They would be two families sharing a single spacious home, a lifestyle that is far more common in the islands. The plan was that it would just be for a few months, but no one was certain.

To their relief, The Woodlands is an area that goes against many stereotypes of Texas. It is a lush and green, with thousands of acres of parks, fields, golf courses and nature reserves. The area is marked by its ubiquitous forested areas, including a wide array of oak trees.

The Yolles-Youngs gradually realized that they had moved into something of a “family fantasy land,” a pedestrian-friendly “suburbia on steroids.”

The school year had already begun, but that brought some big positives. Sam, at age 5, had been excluded from kindergarten by a change in age-related admission rules in Honolulu. If they had stayed in Honolulu, he would have needed childcare, since both his parents worked. In Texas, he was admitted straight into a public kindergarten. That amounted to an automatic savings of about $5,000.

“It is like, ‘How hard do you want to work just to be somewhere? How much do you have to work to make ends meet?’” — Yolles-Young on the financial challenges of living in Honolulu

Just getting into school wasn’t the only difference in The Woodlands. For one, school starts an hour later. But the biggest difference between the public schools was the far more intensive academic focus in Texas, Nora explains.

Makena’s school quickly concluded that she had fallen behind at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School and that she might fail second grade without intervention. They focused specialized attention on her; by the end of the year, her mother says, she made the honor roll.

Scott quickly secured a new job at Rice University in Houston as a research administrator. He has exchanged the traffic of Honolulu for the gridlock involved in getting in and out of Houston — albeit on a bus, so he can be productive in motion.

On the housing front, things worked out on schedule. Within a couple months, the Yolles-Youngs found, rented and settled into a home a mile and half from Nora’s brother’s place.

For about the same $1,800 they had paid for their 700-square-foot ohana unit in Honolulu, they found a spacious 2,600-square-foot four-bedroom home with a grassy yard out back.

The Yolles-Young family, pictured via Skype in front of their backyard in The Woodlands, Texas, have settled into a new life far from Honolulu.
The Yolles-Young family, pictured via Skype in their backyard in The Woodlands, Texas, have settled into a new, more hopeful life far from the islands. 

Nora started to rebuild her life-coaching practice in a new city with enormous cultural differences.

“I did have some growing pains moving to the very conservative state of Texas. In Hawaii I could be very esoteric; here, not so much,” she says.

“In Hawaii, you can be totally woo-woo and people get it,” Nora explains. “There’s a lot of hippies in Hawaii. There are no hippies here. There are people who are sort of like new-agers, enlightened young people who are into yoga and juicing, but anyone older than 30 tends to be grounded in facts and see things through a Christian lens, primarily.”

One place where Nora has learned techniques to bridge this Hawaii-Texas cultural divide is a supportive network of area “mompreneurs” — mothers with businesses — that she didn’t have access to on Oahu. She can network to think innovatively about entrepreneurship and find resources and practices to help her business thrive.

She also got a part-time job at a local health food store.

Honolulu has remarkably low unemployment — it was just 3.2 percent in November — but many salaries are not enough to allow people to afford independent lives in the islands. In the metropolitan area that includes Houston, The Woodlands and Sugarland, joblessness was at 4.8 percent in October.

People in Houston have 15 percent more disposable income than in Honolulu, and that money goes 60 percent further in Houston.

Collectively, Nora and Scott bring in a little more than they did in Honolulu — but their money goes so much further.

Rent, of course, is the biggest item, but they are saving a lot on food. They moved to a place where milk is 53 percent cheaper and bread 46 percent less, according to the consumer-generated price comparison site Numbeo. Eggs and boneless chicken breasts cost about one-third as much. Bananas may grow with relatively little effort in the islands, but they are about 69 percent cheaper in Houston. Oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and lettuce are all at least 40 percent cheaper there.

Utility bills are 37 percent lower in a place where people use plenty of air conditioning, and gasoline is 27 percent less. (Gasoline can be had around Houston for $1.71 per gallon.)

The only life staples on Numbeo’s long list of goods that are more expensive in Houston than in Honolulu are rice and Internet access — and both are only nominally more expensive.

People in Houston have 15 percent more disposable income than in Honolulu, and that money goes 60 percent further in Houston, according to the Numbeo. Translated into income, this means that $4,355 a month in Houston is worth $6,100 in Honolulu.

Back To A Future

These days, the Yolles-Youngs enjoy opportunities unavailable to them in the islands. When they want to visit family, they no longer need to pay for plane tickets. After getting settled in, they took a low-cost road trip to see relatives in far-off Ohio and Michigan.

And the family, which doesn’t use credit cards, is finally saving money again. They also found the resources to take in three pets from the local rescue shelter — two kittens and a medium-sized dog named Penelope.

In fact, their situation has improved enough — thanks also to the improving real estate market in Pittsboro, N.C., where they owned a house that had long been underwater — that they intend to sell that home when their tenant moves out in June and buy a place in Texas.

Such a prospect wasn’t possible in Honolulu. In their circumstances, they could only have dreamed of qualifying for a loan here. But the median home in The Woodlands costs about half what a similar home would in Honolulu, according to the online website Zillow. And homes in Houston cost about a quarter as much.

“We really feel that the kids need some permanence. Even though Scott and I are a bit nomadic, Texas is a good place — you can really go anywhere from here,” Nora says. “It took us a little while to meet cool people, but you know, there are some very cool people.”

Makena Young and brother Sam play on trampoline in Honolulu on September 18, 2014
The neighbors’ trampoline with its breathtaking view of Diamond Head is now a distant memory for Makena and Sam, but the family is looking toward the future in Texas. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Looking at their situation in the big picture, Nora says, “It feels hopeful, like we’re going to be able to build here and have more dreams that we can fulfill. In Hawaii, things felt pretty hopeless. … It was too much. We were totally inundated. There was no visible way out.”

“One thing I will say about us is: We like a good quality of life. We like time with friends and family, and being outdoors. The option of working 24 hours a day is not an option to us. It is like, ‘How hard do you want to work just to be somewhere? How much do you have to work to make ends meet?’”

Quality of life, she says, is more important than location. So working to live in The Woodlands has proved to be better than just living to work in Honolulu.

There is much that the Yolles-Youngs miss, of course, including Nora’s mother in Kaimuki and their many friends in the islands. Nora also misses walking and jogging around Diamond Head, “and, in terms of what Hawaii has to offer about nature, you just can’t duplicate that in Texas,” she says.

In the Texas they have moved to, they were surprised to find a vibrant cultural scene, ripe with live music, museums and diverse cuisine. “There are foodies,” she explains.

Her family, of course, wasn’t in much of a position to afford such offerings on Oahu.

Does Nora have advice for people who are moving to Hawaii, as she and her family did about two years before they left?

“Anticipate and plan, and plan to pay two to four times more,” she said, for just about everything.

“It is an island. It is truly sink or swim,” she says, for middle class or poorer people who can’t access financial support from their family. “You have to get by, or you’re out.”

Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it.

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