HILO — Hawaii’s rising sea of unaffordability has not yet consumed one community where the cost of paradise is less exorbitant and homeownership is attainable for more working families.

That rare place is Hilo.

Just don’t tell anyone.

“It’s an oasis,” said Nan North, 57, who left her native New Jersey and moved to Hilo with her childhood friend in October 2016. “We visited several different locations in Hawaii, and Hilo was the one that captivated us,” she said. “We didn’t know at the time how affordable it was.”

Nan North, left, and Barbara Kurgan on the front porch of their recently purchased Hilo house. Courtesy of Nan North

Warm weather, great food and cultural diversity attracted the two to Hawaii, but it was Hilo’s cost of living that has provided them with an unexpected benefit, she said.

“Thank goodness we loved Hilo because all the other places, you can’t touch anything under $600,000,” North said of home prices, noting she paid less than half that amount for a dwelling in downtown Hilo.

The high cost of living in Hawaii and the accompanying sacrifices needed to survive here have been well reported by Civil Beat. First-person accounts of people forced to leave for economic reasons were both heartfelt and heart-wrenching. They also were about life in communities other than Hilo.

It’s not easy – and seemingly never has been – to eke out a living in Hawaii. The relentless struggle most must endure to survive can be less severe for Hilo folks. True, some find no pot of gold in the “City of Rainbows” due to the scarcity of jobs paying a living wage, rainy weather and a pace of life that some find to be too slow.

Still, money, if you have it, seems to stretch more.

Hilo buyers pay about half what homes cost on other islands and well below residential market values along Hawaii Island’s Kona Coast.

The online real estate marketplace Zillow reports the median value of Hilo homes was $312,800 at the end of 2017, while Hawaii Island’s overall median value was $343,600 and Kona homes had a $503,800 median price tag.

Statewide, the median home value was $620,400. Even pricier were the median home value in Maui County ($628,900) and Honolulu ($686,900). Zillow’s website doesn’t state the median home price for Kauai County, but does list the median price of current Garden Isle listings as $725,000.

New Hilo homes sell for about half the price of comparable Oahu homes. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Only 0.4 per 10,000 Hilo homeowners suffer foreclosure, compared with the nationwide rate of 1.6, while slightly fewer than the national average are delinquent on their mortgage payments, according to Zillow.

Similar home prices are available from the National Association of Realtors. It lists the median value of Big Island homes as $350,052. Prices then jump to $540,109 on Kauai, $620,053 in Maui County and $705,856 on Oahu. Last June, news outlets reported Oahu’s median home prices reached a new record high of $795,000. Condominium prices at the time were $401,000.

Lower selling prices often mean less expensive mortgages and rental fees. The median cost of a Hilo home mortgage is $1,538 compared to a statewide price of $2,267, while the $961 monthly median rental cost trails Hawaii’s $1,456 price tag, according to U.S. Census figures for 2016.

“Hilo would be a bargain compared to anything in the Hawaiian islands and much of the Pacific Coast,” said William “Bill” Walter, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president. “The cost of living in Hilo is generally lower — led by our housing costs that are much lower than the rest of the state.”

But data compiled and recently released by the Council for Community and Economic Research ranks Hilo as having the nation’s highest transportation costs, and second-highest utility and food prices among U.S. cities.

Readers on one Big Island news website disputed those findings, however.

“What analysis is this?” poster Betty Spates asked. “Maui is waaaaaay more expensive than BI. When we moved to Kona, I felt like I was rich compared to living on Maui.”

Fellow poster John Rosner pointed out cost disparities between Big Island communities.

“Rent is so much higher in Kona (than in Hilo) and half of the stores are super expensive tourist traps,” he wrote.

Lifestyle choices can counter some of the living expenses the report cited. For example, Hilo residents don’t have to drive far, typically about 10 miles round-trip or less, to reach the island’s largest job base and a variety of shopping options. This is one reason why some find living in Hilo to be cheaper than in neighboring Puna, where longer commutes, fewer jobs and a lack of discount shopping can offset the rural district’s lower home prices.

Another new Hilo subdivision is being built to meet demand from buyers seeking lower-cost alternatives than found elsewhere in Hawaii. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Solar water heaters are becoming more common and help negate high electricity rates, while the ability to grow or harvest one’s food – bolstered by cheaper land values and larger lot sizes – can cut eating costs.

Walter, a businessman who runs a company that leases land to farmers and retail businesses, said it’s easier to grow food, fish and hunt on the Big Island than on the other islands.

Farmers’ markets also help reduce living expenses, he said.

Hilo provides an added benefit for state and county workers since most earn the same wages as their government counterparts on other islands while paying lower housing and other living costs.

“That makes a real difference,” Walter said of their buying power in Hilo.

The state employs 14,800 people and Hawaii County 2,700, which combined is about 15 percent of the island’s workforce, according to the State of Hawaii Data Book 2016.

Many of those jobs pay above-average wages and are based in Hilo, which is home to the county seat, along with a state hospital, court system and university. These operations help stabilize the economy, albeit at a rising cost to taxpayers and consumers.

Lesser economic benefits are available to everyone. Almost all roadside parking is free in Hilo, there’s no 0.5 percent general exercise tax surcharge like Oahu shoppers pay (although Mayor Harry Kim wants to impose one), and even the nearby zoo doesn’t charge admission.

Hilo’s relatively low prices are attracting home buyers from throughout Hawaii, said Realtor Hank Correa, owner of Hank Correa Realty in Hilo.

“No question. We see it happening all the time,” he said. “For me, East Hawaii is like the last frontier of affordability.”

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