- Special Projects
They who control the land, control Hawaii — but the rest of us still maintain the collective power to effectively change that age-old framework, if we want to.
The Hawaiian Islands is one of the most isolated archipelagos in the world. It’s a natural paradise fully equipped with metropolitan amenities. Hawaii is exotic, but familiar, foreign, but local. It’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right – and everyone wants a taste.
In Part 1 of this series, I chronicled the drastic shift in land ownership in the wake of political turmoil during the latter part of the 19th century and into Hawaii’s territorial era.
In Part 2 of this series, I talked about the shifting character of the Hawaiian Islands from a rural-agricultural-stronghold to a frenzied urban expanse driven by external interests.
In large part, it is those external interests that have radically altered the character of the Hawaiian Islands within the last half-century; and Hawaii’s largest landowners have played the role of gatekeepers to that transformation.
In essence, some of our largest landowners are also real estate developers, who sell our “most-prized” commodity, land or real estate, to a substantial number of out-of-state buyers with enough wealth to afford the ever-growing housing cost. While out-of-state buyers move in, locals move out. Unlike many out-of-state buyers who have the money to afford our high-cost-of-everything, many locals just can’t afford to stay.
Unlike many out-of-state buyers who have the money to afford our high-cost-of-everything, many locals just can’t afford to stay.
These out-of-state buyers bring with them their values and beliefs – their cultures – which can (and have) been imposed on our socio-political-economic-environmental systems. Not only has this housing dynamic transformed the physical characteristics of the Hawaiian Islands, it has altered its mental/emotional/social characteristics. We often see this culture shift at the policy level concerning sustainable development – the clash between the “continental/mainland” and “island” mentalities.
There’s a certain set of values that have been cultivated elsewhere – and they’re probably great for over there – but they’re being injected into the greater system of values here. Sooner or later, the most abundant of these values is going to dominate the system. It’ll be the voice of Hawaii. What do we want it to say?
There’s a growing voice that seems a lot colder than the usual warmth we’re accustomed to here in the Hawaiian Islands. It’s a voice that praises the “haves” and chastises or criminalizes the “have nots.” It’s a voice that says “expand, expand, expand, because if all goes to hell, we can always go back to the ‘mainland.’” The same voice commands the building of the playgrounds for the “rich” and the paving over of the farmlands of the “poor.”
What’s going on here isn’t entirely or solely the gentrification of the Hawaiian Islands; but with an influx of millionaires ranking us third (per capita) in the U.S. and with our seemingly hostile business environment, which can’t be pleasant for small local businesses, gentrification seems to be on the rise.
Hey, it just might be gentrification if your legislated houseless sweeps come equipped with Armani-hat-wearing-sledgehammer-wielding-vigilante politicians to bully one of your most vulnerable populations. Bye-bye Hawaiian hospitality, hello supercilious disregard!
It just might be gentrification if your legislated houseless sweeps come equipped with Armani-hat-wearing-sledgehammer-wielding-vigilante politicians.
If you live here long enough, you’ll hear the trans-generational stories of what Hawaii once was and the fear of what Hawaii has/will become. These fears are most often predicated on the rapidly shifting character of Hawaii, which is the result of us being so heavily affected by external interests. Maybe that’s just the nature of change. Maybe this kind of tide eventually rises. But it doesn’t mean locals should be swept away.
I feel that I need to make sure I’m clear on this very critical topic: It’s not my intention to problematize migrants – that’s certainly not the problem. The problem is the current state of the system and how locals have been so economically disadvantaged that sectors, like housing, have to sell to advantaged out-of-state buyers. This, in turn, has and will have a weighted effect at the policy level that most likely will prove adverse to the long-time values locals have cultivated in these islands (like sustainability – Malama ‘Aina!).
We have a housing crisis. Locals want houses here and so does everyone else, but there’s not enough houses (and natural resources) to go around. Keeping real estate developers from selling to out-of-state buyers isn’t the solution. Prohibiting such a sale would probably be a constitutional violation concerning the Commerce Clause; and really, going all closed-borders isn’t cool by any stretch. We also have an interest in letting landowners exercise their right to sell (and buyers to buy), while keeping in mind the many jobs associated with real estate development – but also keeping sustainability in mind!
Hawaii currently has no rent control laws, but maybe it’s time we start seriously considering them.
We don’t want a housing moratorium primarily because the issue is getting locals into houses and a moratorium would impede that. As we saw with the Mission district of San Francisco, a moratorium would lead to rent hikes and that’s something residents here already struggle with. Of course, legislated rent control could keep rent hikes in check. Hawaii currently has no rent control laws, but maybe it’s time we start seriously considering them.
To solve the housing crisis, we’re going to have to hit this problem from a great many angles. The state has initiated a three-pronged approach: (1) deregulate development to facilitate a construction boom, (2) go full steam ahead with transit-oriented development, and (3) let homeowners build more rentals on their property.
However, these approaches do little to ensure that locals are actually getting into houses, since out-of-state buyers are still rolling in with the funds. This three-pronged approach is a good plan to bolster the power of the housing sector, but where’s the power to the people?
We need to improve local buying power to give us that much-needed, necessary competitive edge to keep us in these islands. This is our home, we have roots here, and this is where we want to live. The Hawaii government should care about that.
Policymakers can improve local buying power directly through grants and subsidies for first-time homebuyers. While they’re doing that, how about grants and subsidies for millennials? We have an entire generation that has gone abroad for college and stays abroad because “rent (and generally, our cost of living) is too damn high!” The other large chunk just ends up living in multi-generational households, hesitant to start families of their own because so long as they’re under their parent’s roof, they don’t feel like there’s much room to grow.
If policymakers can justify possibly $10 billion for a rail project that, I’m sure, many of us no longer (or never did) believe will alleviate traffic as originally promised (what with TOD and all), then surely they can find a justification for breaking a piece of that bank on us jovial taxpayers. (Are we jovial?)
If policymakers can justify possibly $10 billion for a rail project … then surely they can find a justification for breaking a piece of that bank on us jovial taxpayers.
Throw in rent control laws and maybe a tax break for landlords who rent to locals (and/or millennials)! Let’s also increase property taxes on out-of-state owners to show them our love and kick the revenue over to the hungry mouth of our subsidy machine to share that love all around.
A concerted effort like this could really start to improve local buying power. But it would only be the start, and a greater effort would be needed to end this housing crisis. Some of the other things we need to do include: empowering local businesses, tackling the wage monster, and brutally beating down the cost of living in Hawaii.
We have the capacity to control Hawaii and shape it in our image. Are we the kind of people who value social justice, sustainable development, equity, fairness? Is Hawaii the kind of place where paradise existed, was lost, and finally restored? Or are we going for the survival-of-the-most-affluent look?
We can effect the political change necessary to regain control – but we have an abysmal voter turnout! Let’s change that.