- Special Projects
Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series, “Living Hawaii,” that examines our high cost of living and what it will take to bring down “the price of paradise.” Submit your suggestions for what cost-of-living stories we should cover, or join the conversation at our Cost of Living Facebook page.
Jowenna Ellazar adjusts the white sheets on the queen bed, leaning over to tug them snugly over the mattress.
The afternoon light streams through the window, illuminating the pink and purple decorations hanging over the baby’s crib next to the bed. The crib is tucked underneath a brown bunk bed littered with stuffed animals where her 5-year-old son sleeps.
Ellazar and her boyfriend, Shane Mageo, spend $1,000 per month to rent this master bedroom in her family’s home in Mililani, their portion of the $3,675 monthly mortgage payment. The room comes with its own bathroom and a walk-in closet. There’s a TV mounted on the wall and shelves stacked with DVDs, pillows and toys.
It’s not much space. But, she says matter of factly, “that’s Hawaii.”
Their family is among about 7.7 percent of Hawaii households — or around 35,000 households — who live in multi-generational homes, a higher rate than any other state. In central Oahu, the rate is 10.5 percent, according to 2017 Census data.
The state has also consistently had the highest rate of overcrowding in the nation — as of 2016, 9 percent of Hawaii households had more than one occupant per room, nearly three times the national rate.
To some extent, living with family is cultural; Ellazar, 27, is Filipina and wants her kids to be raised by their grandparents. Mageo, 28, is Hawaiian, Samoan and Filipino and grew up with his grandmother.
Unquestionably, though, their living situation is also driven by the reality of Hawaii’s real estate market, where the median home price on Oahu hovers around $800,000. As home prices increase, many residents are moving to the mainland, attracted by the cheaper rents and wider job options.
For those who stay, the compromise is often not being able to move out of their parents’ houses, even for those with professional or union jobs.
Ellazar and Mageo both work at Waikiki hotels and earn $22.14 per hour. She’s a housekeeper and he’s a general cleaner, both union positions that command more than twice the state’s minimum wage.
The rising cost of living in Hawaii has been a problem for decades — sometimes dubbed “the price of paradise,” it’s the unofficial tax that all but the very wealthy are forced to pay. Expensive housing, food, utilities and education mean even upper-middle class residents are frequently calculating financial trade-offs. The lack of affordability also makes it harder to recover from financial missteps.
For politicians, the issue is inescapable, and was a central topic in the recent governor’s race between incumbent Democrat David Ige and Republican Andria Tupola.
Along with their two children, Ellazar and Mageo live with her mother and father; her older brother, 29, and his wife; and her younger brother, 25, and his fiancée, along with a dog, cat and a large turtle.
Having 10 people in their household means free child care and more family time, but it also means sometimes clashing over who pays for what and questioning whether living in Hawaii is worth the sacrifice.
“It’s always a wish or a dream to have your own place,” Ellazar says. “It’s just not affordable.”
Mageo grew up in a Kalihi public housing project surrounding by aunties, uncles and cousins. His grandmother always slept on a bed in the living room. She was a strict Native Hawaiian matriarch, a disciplinarian who always looked out for her grandkids.
Mageo started working in high school to bring home money for the family, who mostly relied on food stamps. He met Ellazar at 19 when they were both working at a bowling alley.
She had recently moved from Maui, where she was born and raised. Her parents immigrated from the Philippines and moved the family to Oahu just before her senior year.
When he moved in with Ellazar, Mageo had been living in Kalihi with his grandmother, his sister and her two kids and his uncle in a two-bedroom apartment.
Ellazar and Mageo, her parents, brothers and their partners were renting four bedrooms in an 11-bedroom house in Kalihi with three or four other families. It was an old house in a convenient location but noisy, with mopeds blaring and buses constantly stopping and beeping outside their house.
The couple thought about getting their own home when their son was born but they couldn’t find an affordable place in town — she wanted to be near her parents so they could help watch the baby. They looked on Craigslist and put their names down for public housing and Section 8, but the wait lists were years’ long.
“The only places we could have afforded were studios and they weren’t near home,” Ellazar recalls. She didn’t even consider paying for child care — even if she and Mageo were both working, the cost made it out of the question.
Buying a house or an apartment outright wasn’t something they thought was possible either. “We would have just been window shopping for places we know we cannot afford,” Mageo says.
When Jaysean was born, Ellazar ended up staying home to watch him and Mageo worked full-time at two separate jobs — earning $8.50 an hour at one and $12 an hour at the hour. The schedule was brutal and he was never home.
Even though he was working two full-time jobs, the family still needed to rely on food stamps.
Ellazar says it was her parents’ dream to own their own place, so when their Kailihi landlord said he was planning to sell the house, they got a real estate agent and started looking.
But buying a house in town was out of the question. Even getting a mortgage in central Oahu wasn’t easy. Ellazar’s father and two brothers work as a mechanic, construction worker and hotel cleaner, the latter two union jobs. But it took all three of their incomes to qualify to buy the property.
For those who stay (in Hawaii), the compromise is often not being able to move out of their parents’ houses, even for those with professional or union jobs.
The large brown house lies near the end of a cul-de-sac not far from a park. It’s the kind of Honolulu neighborhood where the homes are stacked up against each other — the neighbor’s window overlooks their backyard.
Still, at more than 2,600 square feet, the four-bedroom, three-bath house is comfortable and spacious. The dozens of slippers and shoes stacked neatly on a shoe rack outside the front door are the only indication that the house might be home to 10 people. There is even a backyard pool.
Ellazar says her family almost didn’t buy the house because it seemed too far away — living in Mililani means leaving an hour and a half before work, just in case there’s bad traffic.
But now, she can’t imagine leaving the house, which feels like home. On a recent afternoon, she answers the door carrying her 1-year-old daughter. “It’s the first time it’s only us two at the house,” she says.
They’ve lived there for three years. Midway through the afternoon, her brother walks into the kitchen to do laundry; she hadn’t realized he was home.
The living room walls are decorated with framed family photos and Catholic figurines and a crucifix are displayed near the front door. The fridge is covered with Christmas cards and the floor is dotted with a toy kitchen set and a colorful ball pit for the kids.
The Kalihi home didn’t have a yard — now, the kids can play outside and even swim. Her dad built a deck for entertaining, and Mageo likes having space to host Sunday dinners for extended family.
To Ellazar, it’s a dream house. What she wants for her kids is the chance to have stability, not to have to switch high schools right before senior year like she did, to be able to graduate with their class.
“This is the perfect neighborhood to live in,” she says.
But she says her brothers are anxious to leave. It’s just a question of how to afford to do that. She hopes to eventually take over the mortgage from them, but isn’t sure if she and her parents can afford that.
By now, everyone has lived together for so long that they’re used to the small inconveniences that come with 10 people sharing one house. Ellazar says it’s much better than when her family used to run their own cleaning company in Kalihi — living and working together back then meant everyone got on each other’s nerves much more often.
Sometimes they still argue about who pays for what food, but now that their mom is in charge of going to Costco, she buys tuna, spam and other food in bulk and doles out the bills.
They split the utility bills and take turns cooking and cleaning. The Mililani house is a lot bigger than the Kalihi rental was, and often they’re home at different times because of their work schedules.
“Because there’s so much space in this house there’s not too much squabbles. We’re living OK because of the size of the house we have,” Mageo says. He knows other families with the same number of people in much tighter quarters.
Mageo and Ellazar earn about $92,102 annually combined before taxes. On the surface that sounds like a lot of money — according to the Pew Research Center, the family qualifies as middle class. But federal guidelines say a family of four earning $93,300 is considered low-income on Oahu, in part because of how expensive it is to live here.
After tax, their income comes out to about $1,200 to $1,300 each every two weeks, depending on how many hours they work.
Ellazar feels lucky her son qualifies for a Kamehameha Schools scholarship, meaning they pay only $8 per month for preschool. “We got really lucky,” Ellazar says, adding her son wouldn’t be in preschool at all if not for the scholarship because Hawaii doesn’t have public preschool.
But other bills add up — food, rent, car payments, cable. For a long time, Ellazar and Mageo ignored the mounting debt. Whenever Mageo said he was broke, Ellazar would pay off bills using credit cards. She mistakenly thought she needed to pay interest in order to build credit. He didn’t have a credit card and wasn’t paying attention.
It wasn’t until February that they realized their family was behind on their mortgage — instead of throwing their daughter a big first birthday party, they took out a $15,000 loan to save the house.
One night after work, they reckoned with just how deep in debt they were. They owed $21,000 on a car they now regret purchasing and had more than $22,000 in credit card debt. Mageo shredded credits cards and Ellazar wrote up a detailed monthly budget: $93 to Geico; $250 to AT&T; $549 for the loan; $506 for their car payment; $80 for their church.
Mageo Googled “ways of getting out of debt” and started listening to financial guru Dave Ramsey every day on his commute.
They consolidated their debt, opened a joint bank account and started saving for emergencies. They saved $1,000 but that quickly dissipated when a car needed a new battery and tires. They saved another $2,000, but that disappeared when their union went on strike and their income fell by a third.
They’re starting from scratch building up their emergency savings again but aren’t discouraged. They drew up thermometer-shaped charts describing their progress toward their financial goals and colored in their progress in red, pink, orange and yellow.
One chart for Ellazar’s emergency fund, one for Mageo’s — they agreed on $1,500 each, more than the $1,000 Ramsey recommended, because of Hawaii’s high cost of living. Another chart for the Mazda loan and one for their remaining debt, each pinned on the wall of the hallway leading into their bedroom. It’s a daily reminder not to give up.
Mageo is also taking classes to get his engineering license and hopes to eventually earn more money.
“Once we start actually paying off our loans and stuff like that, we’ll be on track,” he says.
On Saturday, Mageo and Ellazar sit across from each other at the dining room table at the Mililani house. There’s a print of the Last Supper on the wall behind Mageo and the movie “Black Panther” plays on the TV. Their son, Jaysean, darts around in his Black Panther Halloween costume, alternately drawing on the whiteboard on the wall behind Ellazar and playing with the amicable cat.
To Mageo, living with lots of family is normal. Most of his friends live with their parents; the only ones who don’t finished college and got high-paying jobs, or joined the military. Ellazar says her friends who actually do live on their own are on the mainland.
Sometimes they talk about moving to Las Vegas. Every year, more people leave Hawaii than move into the state, an exodus that reflects in part the difficulty of making a living in the islands.
Mageo Googled “ways of getting out of debt” and started listening to financial guru Dave Ramsey every day on his commute.
Ellazar’s friends in Arizona rent a house with about the same amount of money that Ellazar and Mageo spend for a single bedroom.
“They’re paying $1,000,” Mageo says.
“Maybe like $1,500,” Ellazar corrects him.
Still, that’s for a house. “An entire house,” Ellazar says incredulously.
But Ellazar doesn’t want to leave — Hawaii is home. Neither does Mageo, who wants his kids to grow up around family. Their hope is to one day take over the payments of the Mililani house and live with Ellazar’s parents.
“Honestly I don’t mind living with just my parents,” Ellazar says. “I think this would be the perfect home to live in with my parents if both my brothers do move out with their wives.”
That would mean each of their kids could have their own room.
“Oh that would be so nice,” Ellazar says at the thought.
“I know, oh that’s nice,” Mageo echoes.
He leans back, folds his arms behind his head and grins. “That’s the dream,” he says, emphasizing the last word. “That’s the American dream, baby. Everybody has their own room.”
If you’re interested in sharing your story and joining the conversation about what it takes to get by in Hawaii — please fill out the form below. We won’t publish any of your stories without your permission.
Every day, journalists in nonprofit newsrooms like Civil Beat dig deeper into the raw news of the day to deliver in-depth and investigative reporting that engages communities, advances solutions, and demands accountability. This news can’t wait. So why would you?
Give today and NewsMatch will double the impact of your donation. We’ll even throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!