Jowenna Ellazar spends eight hours a day changing sheets, scrubbing toilets and wiping down surfaces in hotel rooms at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel in Waikiki.

Then she drives an hour and a half back to Mililani in Central Oahu, where the 27-year-old lives in a four-bedroom house with her boyfriend, two children, two brothers, sister-in-law and parents.

Ellazar is one of thousands of workers who are the backbone of Hawaii’s thriving visitor industry. But she can’t afford to buy a home in the state where she was born and raised.

Unite Here Local 5, a union representing 11,000 service workers, is gearing up for contract negotiations to start next month. Apart from wages and benefits, the union is asking for something new: Money from the hotels to help workers become homeowners.

Hotel worker Jawenna Ellazar says she and her family want to stay in Hawaii but can’t afford to buy a house. Courtesy of Jawenna Ellazar

Buying a house in Hawaii is a pipe dream for someone earning about $46,000 — the average salary of a service worker in a unionized hotel, according to Local 5 spokeswoman Paola Rodelas. The hourly wage of $22.14 is more than twice as much as Hawaii’s minimum wage but it’s still considered low-income given the state’s high cost of living.

The median price of a home on Oahu reached $795,000 in April, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, according to the real estate firm Locations. A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Honolulu workers need to earn at least $39 per hour to comfortably afford a two-bedroom rental.

“The rising cost of housing has made the raises we’re getting for the workers meaningless,” says Eric Gill, financial secretary and treasurer for Local 5. “We get a raise for the workers and they give it to the landlords.”

The lack of housing that’s affordable to the union’s membership is why the union is making the issue part of its collective bargaining this year, Gill says. The union has gotten involved in lobbying against the proliferation of vacation rentals but this is the first time it’s putting the issue on the bargaining table.

Unite Here Local 5 wants hotels to help hospitality workers afford mortgages. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

The request comes as Hawaii’s visitor industry is going gangbusters. It set records last year with more than 9.4 million visitors and close to $16.8 billion in visitor spending. Visitor spending is still rising, up 13 percent in April.

Still, it’s unclear whether hotels will be amenable to the idea. Hilton declined to comment for this story. Marriott did not reply to messages seeking comment.

Even some Unite Here members are skeptical that hotels will decide to contribute, Ellazar says. But she thinks — why not?

“It’s what we want and what we need,” Ellazar says. Many of her friends and family have moved to Nevada or Arizona where the cost of living is cheaper but she doesn’t want to leave. “We were born and raised here. Why do we need to move to Vegas?”

Negotiating Housing Aid

It’s been 30 years since hotel workers in Boston negotiated a housing trust fund with hotel management. Two years later, then-President George H.W. Bush amended a law to allow union negotiations to include housing assistance.

Today the union uses the trust fund to offer workers $10,000 interest-free loans for down payments and closings costs. Unions representing culinary workers and bartenders in Nevada negotiated a similar trust fund for down payment assistance.

Gill from Local 5 says that he can’t say exactly what Hawaii’s housing trust fund would look like — that’s up to the members. But he seems confident about its chances in negotiations.

He has a reason to be — the fact that Hawaii’s unemployment rate is at an all-time-low of 2 percent is not good for hotels, says local economist Paul Brewbaker.

Hilton Hawaiian Village entrance. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Buying a house is out of reach for many of Honolulu’s unionized hotel workers, who earn an average salary of about $46,000. Pictured here is the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“They’re more likely to agree to higher compensation in a market where they’re competing with other industries for a pool of labor that’s almost completely exhausted,” Brewbaker says.

But Brewbaker questions whether a housing trust fund is the best way to address the need for housing given the necessary administrative costs to make it work. Better pay for hotel workers combined with more housing production would be a more efficient way to solve the problem, he says.

“I appreciate their need for a workaround but I’m guessing that this not going to solve very much of the problem that they face,” Brewbaker says. “Successfully engaging with developers to get more housing built in general would be a more productive approach.”

Gill is open to that. “One of the first things people ask for is, ‘Where’s the building?'” he says. “It’s not like people haven’t been looking.”

He says he’s been talking to developers for months and wants to find a way to build housing aimed at service workers along the rail line. But that’s such a complex task that it’s going to take some time, he says.

Another way the union is addressing the issue is by partnering with a national nonprofit to provide low-cost mortgages.

On Thursday, more than 300 workers crowded into a conference room at Ala Moana Hotel for a mortgage workshop from Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a Boston-based organization that’s opening up a Hawaii office.

The organization is holding a five-day event in July to help people get pre-qualified to buy homes. The event is so popular that Rodelas says some members plan to fly in from the neighbor islands to attend.

Ellazar remembers when her parents lost their previous home during the 2008 financial crisis. She plans to go to the workshop and says the idea of more money for housing gives her “comfort that we won’t have to be kicked out of Hawaii in the future.”

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