Oahu eclipsed Maui in population growth over the past decade, topping 1 million for the first time, according to 2020 census data published Thursday, a reflection of how Hawaii’s demographics have changed.

The government data also confirmed that Hawaii is the most diverse state in the nation, with Asians accounting for nearly 36.5% of the population, followed by white people at 21.6%, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders at 10.2% and Hispanic or Latino at 9.5%.

With a growth rate of 6.6% between 2010 and 2020, Oahu’s population boom outpaced even that of Maui County with 6.4%, which pushed its population to nearly 165,000.

State economist Eugene Tian said that was surprising since historically Oahu’s population growth lags behind all of the neighbor islands and Maui.

“Maui was the star in the last 20 years in terms of population growth,” Tian said. “I didn’t expect that Honolulu would have faster population growth than Maui. I don’t think anyone did.”

View of Kakaako from Manoa showing the Honolulu skyline with the same height limit.
Oahu’s decadal population growth rate of 6.6% vaulted ahead of Maui County, which in recent decades has experienced the fastest population growth among the counties. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kauai had the fastest growth among the counties, vaulting ahead by 9.3% to 73,298 people, while the Big Island’s population rose 8.4% to 200,629.

Statewide, the population grew 7% to 1,455,271 people.

Data Sheds Light On Housing Crisis

The new government data also showed the progress of efforts to ease Hawaii’s housing crisis, with both signs of improvement and worsening conditions when it comes to overcrowding.

Kunia Village features some new homes modeled after the original plantation style homes.
Kunia Village on Oahu offers workforce housing to farm laborers and former Del Monte employees. The housing development features historic and new homes modeled after the original plantation style homes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Oahu and the Big Island gained more housing units per person over the past decade. Oahu had 3.1 people per housing unit in 2010 and 3.0 in 2020, while the Big Island had 2.8 people per unit in 2010 and 2.7 in 2020, according to the data.

But Kauai County lost housing units per person, the data showed, with the average number of people per housing unit increasing from 2.9 in 2010 to 3.0 in 2020.

Maui maintained the same number of people per housing unit, 2.9, over the course of the decade.

“This is an indicator of quality of life,” Tian said, noting that new residential construction is often more spacious than aging units.

The census also tracked the percentage of vacant housing units available for people to occupy. This statistic typically includes unoccupied second homes and residences that are on the market for sale or for rent.

All told, 12.6% of Hawaii’s housing units were vacant, including 21.5% in Maui County, 18.1% in Kauai County, 17.7% in Hawaii County and 9.2% in Honolulu County.

Hawaii will use the data to redraw its political boundaries, but the reapportionment and redistricting process has been affected by a four-month delay in the census due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most Diverse

The government data also shed light on Hawaii’s diversity. In 2020 there was a 76% chance that two island residents chosen at random were from different racial or ethnic groups, better odds than anywhere else in America, the report said.

At the county level, Hawaii and Maui counties ranked first and second on the diversity list, while Kauai ranked fourth below Queen’s County in New York.

A volunteer instructs kids on how to hold their paddles as they prepare to launch an outrigger canoe into the ocean at the Poka'i Bay Beach Park Saturday, April 14, 2019. Children are taught three main concepts based on the acronym, KAI: Know your limits, Ask a lifeguard, and Identify hazards, so they will learn to enjoy ocean activities safely. (CivilBeat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Hawaii is the most diverse state in the nation, with Asians representing the largest racial or ethnic group and more than a quarter of all residents identifying themselves as multiracial. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

A quarter of Hawaii residents identified as two or more races, a trend that’s becoming increasingly common nationwide but has long been a mainstay of the islands’ demographics.

Hawaii was one of just four states, including California, New Mexico and the District of Columbia, where white was not the most prevalent race or ethnicity.

Several minority racial groups in Hawaii made dramatic gains between 2010 and 2020, helping earn the state the distinction of having the nation’s highest diffusion score. 

Diffusion scores measure the percentage of the population outside the top three largest racial and ethnic groups combined. This calculation reveals how diverse the population is relative to the largest groups.

The percentage of residents who identified as Black, for example, increased 20% to 46,783 people, with most of the gains occurring on Oahu.

Dancers Mark Englert and partner Maija Salma dance during rehearsal for Salsa in Hawaii: The Hawaii Salsa and Bachata Congress event held at the District Nightclub.
Maui residents Mark Englert and Maija Salma take the dance floor at District Nightclub in Chinatown during rehearsal for Salsa in Hawaii: The Hawaii Salsa and Bachata Congress. The annual five-day event draws thousands of latin dancers and spectators to Honolulu from around the world. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s Latino population grew by 15%, an increase of more than 18,000 people — and it’s expected to continue to rise at least for the foreseeable future.

Farm workers from Latin America propped up Hawaii’s coffee and pineapple industries, which suffer from labor shortages. Apart from agriculture, many immigrants from Latin America work in the service and construction industries.

At just over 11%, the Big Island has the largest Latino population in Hawaii.

The census also showed that Hawaii’s adult population group grew 9.4% to 1.16 million people over the decade ending in 2020. More than three-quarters of Hawaii’s population, or 79.4%, were 18 and older.

Meanwhile, the state’s population of children under 18 decreased by nearly 2%.

According to the Census Bureau, 99.9% of Hawaii households were counted. Hawaii’s self-response rate was 63.1%, down from 71% for the 2010 census. An additional 36.8% of households in Hawaii were counted last year by door-to-door census takers who visit households that did not fill out the census form on their own.

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