For R.J. Martin, an Oahu real estate developer who once taught power yoga and college history, building homes has been about not just making a buck, but also addressing unfilled niches and social issues —  like building affordable, energy efficient homes on the lower-income west side of the island.

Now Martin is addressing another niche: remote workers coming to the islands as the COVID-19 pandemic has created the opportunity for tech types to work in paradise. To that end, Martin has taken over the penthouse of the Century Center condo tower on Kalakaua Avenue, where he’s building out a dozen small bedrooms connected to posh, shared living, dining and work spaces.

The idea, Martin says, is to build a community of “global citizens,” including digital nomads and returning kamaaina who need a short-term landing pad. Surfbreak HNL, as the property is called, will offer leases of three to six months, a rarity in Honolulu.

While the rent’s not cheap – starting at $1,600 per month for a small single room with a twin bed – Martin is selling more than a place to crash. The idea is to let somebody check in with a suitcase and laptop and get to work. There’s wired Internet in every room, a free pass for the Biki bike-share program, coworking space and even a studio for producing YouTube videos and podcasts.

R.J. Martin
Real estate developer R.J. Martin is creating a co-living space for digital nomads in Ala Moana. 

The Hui car share service will have rentals on site. But perhaps the most powerful feature also is the most ephemeral.

“This place has a goal,” said Daniela Jines, a Bolivian lawyer and scholar in Hawaii studying organizational development, who is helping Martin set up Surfbreak. “And that’s different from any hotel.”

“The goal is we need to build a community that meshes, that wants to work together, that wants to help each other out,” Martin said. “We want people who will give to the community, not just take.”

A Place For Remote Workers

Remote workers have become a cause celebre in Hawaii amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Some view courting young, well-educated and socially conscious outsiders with portable jobs as a way to reverse Hawaii’s notorious brain drain and bolster the economy. Some of the proponents have even created a program to provide free plane tickets and a support network, including volunteer projects and cultural education, as part of a program called Movers and Shakas.

While critics see remote workers merely as competition for resources like housing, it’s been difficult for economists to document the number of remote workers coming to the state, much less prove the workers are driving up housing prices. An economic forecast published in March by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, for instance, said, “There is very little data that would enable a direct estimate of the number of new remote workers, and the housing market shows a mixed picture.”

“If there has been new demand for rentals from remote workers,” UHERO concluded, “the effect seems to have been dwarfed by weak local demand” for rental housing.

In any case, the remote workforce is a reality, and one likely to grow. In an interview discussing Hawaii’s economy in September, Mike McCartney, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said Hawaii already had 38,000 people working from home.

Although McCartney’s focus is on training local workers for remote employment, he said Hawaii can “double that number in a year,” which would add as many new jobs as the entire construction industry, according to federal jobs data published by UHERO.

Hawaii Convention Center and Century Center Tower. Kalakaua Avenue/Kapiolani Blvd.
Occupying the top floor of Century Center, the monolithic building at the center of the photo here, Surfbreak HNL has commanding views of Waikiki and Manoa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

On a recent tour of the Surfbreak space, the most striking feature was the view. The Century Center tower sits as a lone high-rise tower just outside of Waikiki, on a parcel bordering the mostly low structures of Ala Moana and Moiliili. That gives the penthouse’s floor-to-ceiling windows spectacular views: of the sky, the Ala Wai canal snaking toward Diamond Head, the vast ocean and the Manoa Valley’s great, green expanse.

The rooms themselves are still being finished. Martin plans to start with 12 residents. Whether he grows beyond that, he said, will depend on whether that many people can comfortably use shared spaces, including bathrooms.

While one benefit of sharing common spaces is to lower each resident’s carbon footprint, Martin said the goal isn’t to create a crowded hostel. Rather he wants to create comfortable quarters for people with the money to rent pricey condos or hotel rooms.

Nima Zeighami, who helps design Android phones out of Menlo Park, California, expects to be one of Surfbreak’s first residents. He’s been living in a hotel in Waikiki, and Surfbreak is a much better deal, he says.

Paying for co-work space alone is expensive, he said. But one kicker for him was being able to set up a virtual reality studio as part of Surfbreak’s media production room. Access to such a room in a cowork space would cost $1,500 per month, he said.

To Martin, having Zeighami volunteer to help set up such a space was exactly the sort of collaboration he’s looking for.

“He asked, ‘Could I do it?’” Martin recalls. “I said, ‘Will you do it?’”

Co-Living Could Provide Low-Cost Housing

Martin’s track record suggests Surfbreak will succeed. His company Green Homes Hawaii has built two residential developments in West Oahu. The first, Green Homes at Lualualei, consisted of 25 energy-efficient homes, including 15 that sold for less than $300,000 and got first-time home buyers into houses with mortgage payments comparable to what they were paying in rent.

His second project, Green Homes Hanalei Street in Makaha, includes seven homes with solar panels, Tesla Power Walls for battery storage and auto charging stations – all meant to keep the cost of owning a home low by keeping energy costs low.

That experience showed Martin why housing in Hawaii costs so much.

“Once you are doing more than just a couple of homes, it triggers the involvement of somewhere between two and three dozen county and state agencies,” he said. “It’s just insane the amount of hurdles you have to deal with. Things just unfold in bizarrely unpredictable ways.”

“It’s just the landscape,” he added. “It’s just how it is. I’m not trying to make a political statement or have an axe to grind. It’s just how it is.”

Converting a building into a co-living space has its own challenges, Martin said. Not the least of the hurdles is finding a property with the zoning to allow a mix of business and residential uses. Martin foresees a co-living space for current residents with rents more in the $800 range.

They key is finding the right property or the public deciding it wants more and changing the laws.

“While this particular zoning is kind of rare, why should it be?” he said. “We’ve actively created all of these problems, and we could easily uncreate them.”

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