Jackson Grubbe of the conservative think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii recently suggested that increasing suburban sprawl via real estate development into Hawaii’s finite agricultural lands could keep millennials from leaving Hawaii (“Building More Suburbs Could Help Millennials Stay In Hawaii”).

I strongly disagree.

Keeping the millennials of multi-generationally rooted local households in Hawaii is a matter of satisfying two significant conditions: whether the millennial wants to reside in Hawaii over alternative options, and whether the millennial has the capacity to reside in Hawaii at all. Taking into consideration both conditions, housing inventory isnʻt exactly playing the most pivotal role in determining whether a millennial can remain in Hawaii.

The brain drain, which is the seemingly permanent departure of highly educated and or highly skilled residents for opportunities elsewhere, which often includes college-bound and/or job-seeking millennials, is one of the major crises that Hawaii faces today. Our other crises include climate change, a ridiculously high cost of living, houselessness, and the great lack of “affordable” housing and economic opportunities (among so many other things), which themselves have become major factors of the brain drain.

Mariners Ridge. Hawaii Kai houses. 8 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Building more suburbs is not the solution to Hawaii’s brain drain, the author argues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The brain drain is such a serious issue because it is ultimately a loss to our stateʻs overall socio-political-economic potential — and everything and anything that touches it. The brain drain is the potential loss of our youngest generation is the severing of our identity and our ongoing connection to these islands — and no generation feels the pain of that loss greater than our kupuna (elders), who could benefit from the comfort and care of younger generations.

For a great many local families, maintaining a close connection between the generations is absolutely critical to keeping families together. For many of us, the very foundation of our most intimate social circle — family — is at stake here.

Understanding the cause for the brain drain is essential in identifying those factors that create the conditions that determine whether a millennial can remain in Hawaii. Every millennial with roots in these islands is likely to ask themselves, at one point or another, whether they want to continue living in Hawaii.

Take into consideration all the possible “no” answers, and you’ll likely find yourself with infinite reasons. If you narrow these reasons down to those that the state government can directly affect, youʻre likely to hear the same reasons as everyone else: “Everything is too expensive here.”

‘Can’t Pay Rent’

Distill these reasons further yet, to those that are millennial-specific, and youʻll probably hear a whole lot of: “Can’t afford anything while also paying back this huge student loan,” “can’t find a job with this degree,” “can’t pay rent with this job that I took out student loans for.” It starts to sound like one nasty high-cost-of-living-no-economic-opportunities sandwich.

This nasty sandwich also comes with equally nasty and often overlooked sides. The lack of adequate economic opportunities often obfuscates the great economic burden attached to our recreational activities. Not only are we severely limited in recreational activities here — activities we engage in to rejuvenate our spirits after being run down by the daily grind — our geographic isolation often requires us to pay a whole lot more to access recreation outside of Hawaii. Considering the ideal work-play-live scenario, Hawaii is far from accommodating the average millennial.

So, here within the complexities of the millennial-impacting brain drain is the reason why I strongly disagree with Mr. Grubbe in his assertion that real estate development of agricultural lands could keep millennials in Hawaii. Itʻs not housing inventory that is a determinant factor in keeping millennials here.

Most local millennials with their freshly earned college degrees in hand aren’t grinding through real estate ads like East Coast retirees looking for a tropical escape. They are looking for jobs, preferably high-enough paying ones. They are looking to build their careers, while also building savings, and that requires temporary, near-work affordable housing, and a comfortable cost of living.

Settling in a suburb, where more than a third of your monthly income goes to your mortgage, while the other two-thirds immediately goes toward the cost of living in Hawaii and paying down your debt, where you canʻt build savings because you literally live paycheck to paycheck, and at least four hours of your day is spent in a life-sucking commute to and from your job is not the millennial dream.

In addition, further reducing Hawaii’s capacity to feed itself (loss of agricultural lands), while increasing the number of mouths to feed (real estate development) isn’t exactly the kind of sustainable practice that might encourage a savvy millennial, who knows these islands are one natural disaster away from a food crisis.

Capacity To Prevail

Now, for those millennials determined to live in Hawaii, actually staying here means having the capacity to prevail where so many others have failed before. This means either having the financial capital to power over the high cost bar here, or having adequate social capital, like living rent-free (or with reduced rent) with friends or family that allows one to meagerly get by. The latter isn’t exactly the most ideal situation for millennials and it’s often a determination made out of sheer desperation or sacrifice — and finding a truly adequate job in a place that sorely lacks “play” will still be challenging.

Keeping local millennials that want to live here in Hawaii would require monumental changes in how so many things have been done. Hawaii would need to restructure and build for millennial orientation. Conversely, simply increasing the housing inventory as Mr. Grubbe suggests would only result in business as usual: housing inventory being scooped up by non-local, non-millennial residents who donʻt suffer the cost burden suffered by multi-generationally-rooted locals, to be used as an income generating mechanism.

Keeping local millennials that want to live here in Hawaii would require monumental changes.

Local millennials need diverse economic opportunities. They need the state to develop and encourage new economic sectors and serve as a friendly state to do business in, especially for small minority-owned businesses. They need programs to address student debt. They need fortified industries that make trade skills (especially in the tech sector) economically viable. Local millennials need adequate work-play-live environments where they can build wealth in order to encourage the economic growth of Hawaii, while also saving for a family of their own.

Finally, instead of seeing agricultural land as vacant ground for real estate development potential, we should support our rather large number of students graduating with degrees in agriculture and business, to rebuild our ag sector and to develop a world-class farm tech sector to not only stand Hawaii up as a major food exporter, but to also sufficiently address local food costs and food security as well as any international food issues brought on by climate change.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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