In July, Hawaii Life real estate broker Mary Anne Fitch got a phone call from a Silicon Valley tech couple. They wanted to spend their summer vacation on Maui, but the coronavirus had shuttered most hotels.
During an hourslong conversation over Facetime, Fitch said she helped the couple find the next-best thing: a $14.5 million property in West Maui.
For Fitch, the home sale was the first in a deluge of spontaneous real estate purchases by monied families, primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area, who are fleeing high virus rates on the mainland to enjoy Hawaii’s climate and beaches.
“The tech people have been mandated not to work in their offices, so they have flexibility to be anywhere,” Fitch said. “These families feel that here they have year-round good weather, the children can be outside and they can resume some sort of normal life.”
As Hawaii holds tight to its reputation as a relatively safe place to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, people with the ability to work remotely are leaving behind virus hotspots and transporting their lives to the Hawaiian islands.
Some of these newcomers are expediting future plans to relocate to the islands, while others are hatching the idea of Hawaii residency, and quickly seizing it, for the first time.
A portion are buying homes without even seeing the house first.
“We’re getting calls from people who say, ‘I’ve never been to Hawaii, but it checks all of my boxes and I’m interested,'” said Beth Thoma Robinson, a Hawaii Life real estate broker on the Big Island.
Although the pandemic initially brought a decrease in new residents moving to the islands, a burst of newcomers started materializing in midsummer.
From Aug. 1 to Nov. 15, the daily number of intended new residents increased 20% to an average of more than 180 people compared to an average of about 150 people in 2019, according to voluntary survey data collected by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Recent gains in new residents, however, don’t make up for the sharp decline in the number of people who moved to Hawaii in spring and early summer, when strict quarantine rules and virus fears all but halted air travel.
It’s also impossible to know how many of these newcomers will actually stay.
Justin Tyndall, assistant professor of economics at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said more complete data is needed to understand how the pandemic is shaping population movement in the islands. That won’t be available until the U.S. Census publishes its annual report on resident migration trends next summer.
For years Hawaii has lost more residents to the mainland each year than it gains.
In 2018, Hawaii gained 54,000 new residents from the mainland — but the contiguous states stole away 67,000 residents, many of whom were driven off by the exorbitant cost of living.
If the virus persists, Tyndall said it could lead to a greater exodus from Hawaii, even as the state absorbs a new wave of digital workers.
“I think it’s absolutely possible that there will be some amount of new residents coming who are attracted by the ability to work remotely in Hawaii while earning their income from a different market,” he said. “But my guess would be that that’s still going to be outweighed by the drain to the mainland. People who are earning their wages locally are going to have a much harder time sticking around.”
As with many aspects of life during the pandemic, new arrivals to Hawaii tend to be uncertain about how long they’ll remain in the islands.
State planners are angling to get them to stay. A rush of new residents with steady paychecks and remote work flexibility could help the local economy recover, reverse the brain drain and recoup some of the devastating losses to the state’s tax base.
The state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is in the process of designing and funding a marketing campaign to entice remote workers to make Hawaii their long-term home.
“It’s just about attracting the right people who want to be here for the right reasons and want to be part of this place,” said DBEDT Director Mike McCartney.
McCartney said he also hopes some Hawaii residents who’ve left the islands for better career opportunities will now be able to return home and perform their jobs remotely.
Beyond stunning scenery and low virus rates, Fitch said there’s something else inspiring some people to make Hawaii their new home: schools offering in-person learning — an almost impossible find in some states.
“People aren’t super nice when they find out we just moved here.” — Tyson Spiess
Since August, student enrollment has climbed by about 11% at Maui Preparatory Academy, a small private school in Napili that has not abandoned classroom learning, said Principal Ryan Kirkham.
“We were anticipating a substantial drop in enrollment this year due to all the uncertainty with COVID,” Kirkham explained. “I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams anticipated we’d be bursting at the seams.”
According to Fitch, Maui Prep’s enrollment spike started with a Silicon Valley tech family that flew to Maui for a temporary reprieve from the pandemic. When virus conditions in California worsened, the family made their move more permanent. They bought a home on Maui and enrolled their children in Maui Prep.
The family shared their plan with coworkers and friends. Ultimately, they inspired at least a dozen other Silicon Valley families to relocate to Maui and enroll their children in Maui Prep, according to Fitch, who is a co-founder of the school.
Now many of these families are buying homes priced upwards of $3 million, Fitch said.
“Many of the families were doing six-month rentals and they thought they’d go back, probably after Christmas,” Fitch said. “As their rental agreements begin to expire, many of the families are now acquiring homes and making their stay on Maui more permanent — namely because the COVID progress has gone in the wrong direction.”
It’s not only the rich that are descending on Hawaii.
The pandemic handed Seattle native Reid Furubayashi a chance to work remotely from Oahu, where he has cousins, aunts, uncles and a 94-year-old grandmother.
He planned to stay in Hawaii for a month — work, hike, swim, reconnect with relatives. Three months later, he’s still here with no plans to return to his former life in Seattle.
“I think this is a little bit of a test run,” said Furubayashi, a 27-year-old executive recruiter who is related to McCartney of DBEDT. “Now that it’s possible to be here with my work and the geography is less of an issue, I’m going to see what cost of living is actually like here.”
A microcosm for this population shift — and a window into fears about community displacement — can be seen in a dramatic membership shuffle at Hub Coworking Hawaii.
Since March, dozens of deeply rooted local members have abandoned the Honolulu coworking space due to virus fears, job or revenue losses or new child care demands at home.
Hub member Joanne Hayashi said she now operates the nonprofit organization Breast Cancer Hawaii out of the safety of her Kaneohe home, but hopes to return to the coworking space when the threat of the virus diminishes and the new child care demands she’s absorbed at home recede.
At the Hub, desks and offices abandoned by artists, academics, web developers, financiers, community organizers and social change-makers have not remained empty. Starting in July, a string of new remote workers from the mainland joined the co-working space.
“It’s almost like we have a whole new community now,” said George Yarbrough, the Hub’s co-founder.
As many as 20 remote workers from the mainland joined the Hub in the last month, Yarbrough said. Before the pandemic, the Hub would typically absorb one to two new remote workers from the mainland per month.
“I have a member from San Francisco who is married to someone who was born and raised in Hawaii, and they are tired of the rat race in San Francisco,” Yarbrough said. “So they decided to move to Hawaii with their two young kids and give it a shot and just see. They are coming here thinking it could be permanent, but there’s still this tinge of, ‘Oh, if it doesn’t work out, we can just go back.'”
If the state can build a program that tips the scale so that Hawaii isn’t just a revolving door for transient remote workers but a magnet for community-minded new residents, Yarbrough said he believes the whole state could benefit.
To that end, he and the directors of other Honolulu coworking spaces are in the process of designing a cultural immersion program for new remote workers. The goal is to welcome new residents and help them gain an understanding of Hawaii’s unique geography, slang, hazards, history and values.
What does it mean to give and receive aloha? What is the rainy season? What is the role of the aina in Hawaiian culture? What is proper surf etiquette? How do you show respect to kupuna?
“There’s this push to market to these digital nomads and remote workers to attract them to come here, and I think it’s awesome because it sort of reverses the brain drain,” Yarbrough said.
“At the same time, we should not be forgetting about our own community who are struggling right now and maybe struggling more than people who have the freedom of a good paycheck and the ability to be able to move and work from anywhere.”
When the pandemic hit, Tyson Spiess, a 33-year-old construction broker and small business consultant, accelerated his dream of relocating his family of five from Oregon to Kauai, where his wife has relatives.
Almost immediately, Spiess said he became self-conscious about his out-of-state license plates.
“People aren’t super nice when they find out we just moved here from Oregon,” Spiess said. “Nobody really wants us to be here. And I get it, it’s kind of like how we feel in Oregon with Californians.”
For some locals, the influx of new residents is intensifying a long-held fear of being replaced by outside opportunists with bigger purse strings.
“I think the question is are we going to see a mass exodus of local people moving to the mainland?” said Keone Kealoha, executive director of the environmental sustainability nonprofit Kanu Hawaii. “Especially when you have a laundry list of people that are ready to come over here and take their spot.”
It’s a concern shared by Yarbrough.
“I want the community that has put in their time and sweat equity to do really good work here to be able to buy a home here, to be able to raise their kids here — and that’s not really what I’m seeing happening right now,” Yarbrough said. “I would project that it’s going to get harder for local people to make it.”
But the idea that rich newcomers are stealing housing opportunities from just-barely-making-it locals is a fictitious scenario, according to Robinson, the Big Island real estate broker.
Yes, housing prices in lower-end markets are increasing. But that’s because there’s an affordable housing inventory shortage and an incredible demand for homes from local residents with secure jobs who want to take advantage of historically low interest rates, she said.
“The people who are coming from someplace else are not competing with the first-time buyers,” Robinson said. “They’re wealthier. They’re more established. They’re looking at $6 million homes — that’s not displacing a local resident, that’s displacing someone who’s exactly like them.“
Mahina Paishon-Duarte, the social entrepreneur behind Honolulu’s Waiwai Collective coworking space, said she chooses to see the influx of new Hawaii residents as an opportunity.
“If these folks are bringing in new networks, new skills, new insights, I’m totally open to that as long as there’s a desire to participate and to ground themselves in local culture and all of the traditions and practices that make our home really, really special,” she said.
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