Puna Is The Fastest Growing Place In Hawaii. But It Comes With A Catch

Plagued by poverty, poor infrastructure, volcanic eruptions and crime, the windward region still attracts a broad spectrum of people looking for their own slice of paradise.

Homes are being constructed on the lava field in Puna's Kalapana Gardens neighborhood. (Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat/2023)

PAHOA, Big Island — Gary Pickler grew up in a military family in California, the son of a naval officer and a homemaker who urged him to become “rich and famous.”

He shunned his parents’ path and took up tarot card and palm reading instead, supplementing his income with henna tattooing, astrology and massage therapy.

“I became a hippie and a rebel and earned money in unusual ways,” said Pickler, 75.

Gary Pickler earns most of his living reading palms and giving massages, but he’s also a chess master who has managed a boarding house and worked as a security guard and for the Post Office. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023


Pickler spent years reading palms and tarot cards on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and in Berkeley, earning up to $400 a day. The money was decent but life on the street was hard. Competing tarot readers tried to run him off. Street vagrants were a constant hassle.

When someone told him about a rural spot on the Big Island friendly to spiritual seekers and boasting cheap real estate, Pickler packed his bags.

Arriving in Puna in December 1998, Pickler bought a ramshackle house for $23,000 in the Ainaloa subdivision. After learning of Puna’s crime problems on a bulletin board, he invested another $17,000 to fix up the house and to deter thieves.

Neighbors took notice as he installed locked gates and wooden shutters. Pickler adopted a Doberman Pinscher and Rottweiler from a shelter to beef up security. He said his home is one of the few that has not been burglarized in the neighborhood.

“You’d need a chain saw to break in here,” Pickler said, describing his place as a “fort.”

Crime is just one of the many systemic issues Puna grapples with. Poverty, domestic abuse, addiction, poor infrastructure, substandard housing, homelessness, limited medical care and other chronic problems plague the district, according to residents, officials and community nonprofit leaders. Then there are the recurring natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that regularly rattle Puna.

And yet people are still flocking to the district, making it the fastest-growing part of Hawaii over the last decade. While Puna has its share of issues, the region also exudes an underlying sense of chill. It’s a laid-back place populated by residents who are often unconventional, creative and self-reliant — people like Pickler.

But newcomers, along with longtime residents, are increasingly demanding better services, forcing elected officials to pay more attention to a region where many feel disregarded.

Paradise At A Price

On a recent afternoon, Pickler relaxed in a chair along Highway 130 at the entrance to Pahoa, Puna’s hub community. A large wooden sign advertising his services stood nearby. A gentle rain lightly soaked his makeshift office as flashes of sunshine and a rainbow burst through concrete-gray skies.

Business has been slowing down.

“I’ve read pretty much everyone’s palm in this area,” Pickler said.

But he’s not particularly worried and isn’t planning on going anywhere. He has plenty of company among the free spirits that permeate Puna, as well as the wide assortment of others seeking a slice of paradise while they still can.

In a state with the country’s highest cost of living and punishing real estate prices, Puna offers a rare reprieve.

This rural district on the Big Island’s southeast coast is a place where land and homes are still within reach for residents struggling to get by.

The Puna district on Hawaii island is about 500 square miles, roughly the size of Oahu. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)
Puna draws an eclectic mix of residents despite its complex challenges. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023) April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023

At roughly 500 square miles — about the size of Oahu — Puna offers a rustic oasis for those seeking a quiet, country lifestyle. Homes sell for half the cost — or less — of a place in Honolulu, where the median home price has topped $1 million. Puna appeals to others wanting a bedroom community within commuting distance of jobs and services in Hilo about 16 miles north.

But life in Puna comes at a cost. The far-flung district regularly grabs headlines for brutal crimes, like the recent violent slaying of a 58-year-old woman in Orchidland Estates on April 28.

In addition to violent crimes, drug addiction fuels lower-level crimes like backyard thefts, break-ins and squatters overtaking homes vacated by snowbirds, according to members of community watch patrols. Children are frequently reported as runaways, and police often seek the public’s help in finding missing or vulnerable adults, according to police news releases.

Puna’s geography also makes it extremely vulnerable to upheaval.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura has been advocating for cesspool conversion incentives or a wastewater treatment plant in Puna. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023) David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

It sits on the slopes of Hawaii island’s most active volcano. Kilauea’s major eruption in 2018 wiped out more than 700 homes and structures and displaced over 2,000 residents.

That eruption deepened a severe island-wide housing crisis. Hawaii County forecasts it will need up to 13,500 new houses to address the problem by decade’s end, which could spur more development in Puna.

Kilauea — home of the volcano and fire goddess Pele, which many residents revere — has erupted dozens of times since 1952 and is an ever-present threat, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Just last Monday, volcanologists reported “small flurries of earthquakes” crackling beneath Kilauea’s summit along with accumulating magma, signs the volcano might be getting ready to blow.

State Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who lives in Puna, said she thought after the last eruption that the district’s population would decline as more people became aware of the risks. Instead, she said, “there’s been more influx.”

In 2018, the Hawaii National Guard escorted media into Leilani Estates, a Puna neighborhood, while a fissure spewed lava hundreds of feet into the air. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018) Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Looming Hazards

Life in Puna implies living on the edge.

About 44% of the subdivisions lie within hazard zones 1 and 2, according to a 2008 county report. Such zones are most at risk of being inundated by lava or rattled by earthquakes.

Obtaining financing for house purchases in Puna can be tough, and homeowner’s insurance is limited at best. Many Puna homes were constructed without building permits, so funky dwellings abound.

Most have no access to county water or sewer lines, forcing residents to rely on wells or rainwater catchment for drinking water. They empty their waste into septic tanks or cesspools, a growing environmental concern.

San Buenaventura said she hasn’t seen evidence yet of wells being contaminated by cesspools. But with all the growth happening in Puna and more people digging wells to avoid catchment systems, she feels “it’s just a matter of time.”

In contrast to the multimillion-dollar homes that dot the Kona coast on the island’s sunny west side, poverty in Puna is pervasive.

Many residents in Puna rely on rain catchment systems for water. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

Much of the Big Island’s subsidized, low-income housing is in Puna. One in four children under the age of 5 lives below the poverty line. More than a quarter of residents rely on food stamps, according to the county and census data.

Still, many longtime residents say they wouldn’t live anywhere else, citing the beauty, the lifestyle and what some call the “healing vortex energy.”

Robin Worley is a Puna-based artist and fashion designer. (Courtesy: Robin Worley) 

Puna is the first place in the Hawaiian Islands that the sun touches each morning because it’s the easternmost spot in the archipelago, artist and fashion designer Robin Worley noted. The window nearest her bed faces east and the rising sun greets her every dawn.

“To me, Puna is a magical place. Songs written about Puna are usually about the fragrances of hala or maile or the loud voice of the sea at Kalapana. It’s the place in legend where Pele decided to land her canoe and take up residency,” said Worley, who moved to Puna in 1977 directly out of high school in northern California.

Puna was sparsely populated back then.

In 1970, 5,154 residents called the district home. By 2000, there were six times as many people. The population had ballooned to 51,704 in 2020, according to census data.

Puna is expected to top 75,000 residents by 2030. By contrast, growth in Hilo, the county seat, has been stagnant. Its population was 44,186 in 2020, barely 900 people more than in 2010.

In short, Puna is booming. Abbie Rabinowitz understands why, noting her tight community of friends who live close by.

Abbie Rabinowitz is an artist and art teacher who lives in Seaview Estates in the Big Island’s Puna District. Courtesy: Abbie Rabinowitz

“We’re all alternative-type folks. Not many mainstream types in Puna,” said Rabinowitz, an artist and teacher who lives in an airy home on a large lot in Seaview Estates.

Originally from Connecticut, Rabinowitz moved to Puna from California in 2017. A Puna juggling festival in the late-1990s drew her to the district.

“I love that I can step outside naked in my backyard and no one cares or notices,” she said.

Besides residents fleeing higher-cost areas of Hawaii, mainlanders and others are moving into Puna. Whether they’re digital nomads, New Age healers or snowbirds from Alaska, the demographic tapestry of Puna is decidedly eclectic.

That’s a big part of the appeal, many residents say. Despite its reputation for crime, geographic isolation and volcanic upheaval, Puna exudes the aloha spirit.

It has a large percentage of Native Hawaiians — in some neighborhoods as high as 39% — including many who are active in the sovereignty movement.

On Wednesday evenings, a popular spot for live music and gathering in lower Puna is Uncle Robert’s awa bar. Adorned with Kingdom of Hawaii flags, the open-air Kalapana business features Hawaiian food specialties and fresh fruit smoothies.

Rabinowitz said she loves the “welcoming energy” that Uncle Robert‘s large Hawaiian family offers the  community.

The district values diversity, residents said. It embraces everyone from orchid growers to subsistence fishermen to papaya farmers, and everything in between, according to longtime residents.

Local businesses play off that value, whether it’s eateries in Pahoa displaying Rastafarian colors or Buddhist prayer flags or real estate agents marketing Puna’s “come as you are” style.

“From country, to city, outcast to hippie, you are always welcomed and loved in this vibrant area,” reads a local real estate website.

The district, naturally, is home to a clothing-optional beach and several intentional communities and retreat centers offering healing practices like yoga, Reiki and Watsu, a form of aquatic bodywork, and organ cleansing. Puna has an active LGBTQ+ community, and ecstatic dance is said to have been born at Kalani, an oceanside wellness and retreat center in Puna.

Not All Hippies And Healers

Agriculture and permaculture are also primary features of Puna’s character given the area’s large tracts of land and former plantations.

Flowers, macadamia nuts, papaya, bananas and others tropical fruits are all grown in Puna, according to the Department of Agriculture. People raise chickens, pigs and goats and make their own food or sell it at local farmers markets, along with visionary artwork, handprinted T-shirts and jewelry made from shells, coconuts and lava rock.

Geothermal energy production as well as commercial, sport and subsistence fishing are central to Puna’s economy, although fishing has taken a hit since 2018 when the Kilauea eruption cut off access to the Pohoiki boat ramp. Fishermen used the ramp to access nearby fishing grounds but it became unusable after hot lava hit the water, creating a black sand beach and landlocking the ramp.

At a recent public meeting, Ku‘ulei Kealoha Cooper, whose family has lived in Puna for seven generations, implored state officials to move forward with plans to restore access to the boat ramp.

“The concern I have is for our lawai’a, our fishermen. They have been expending $800 to go out of Hilo,” she said.

The boat ramp is important not only for food security but for cultural sustainability. Before the eruption blocked access to the ramp, Cooper said, it was a place that brought families together for gatherings and ceremonies.

A fishing boat approaches Pohoiki boat ramp in August 2017, months before the eruption. (Courtesy: Ryan Finlay) Courtesy of Ryan Finlay

Puna’s challenges started long before the eruption though.

Just prior to statehood, in 1959, a frenzied period of land speculation resulted in a slew of “nonconforming subdivisions” being carved out. Some call them “land scam subdivisions.”

“At the time, folks needed money to build out Hilo,” said Hawaii County Council member Ashley Lehualani Kierkiewicz, who represents parts of Puna.

She explained how the county needed property tax revenues, so it developed these subdivisions.

With the blessing and sometimes personal financial involvement of state and county officials, the subdivisions were built without basic amenities like sewer and water, sidewalks, electricity, mail delivery or schools. There were no requirements to include such things.

Between 1958 and 1973, more than 52,500 subdivision lots were created in Puna, according to county records. By the time the boom ended in the mid-1970s, about 80,000 lots had been created on an island with less than 80,000 residents at the time, according to “Land and Power in Hawaii,” a 1985 book on modern Hawaiian history and politics.

Ashley Lehualani Kierkiewicz is a member of the Hawaii County Council, representing the Puna District. Courtesy: Ashley Kierkiewicz

Decades after many of the subdivisions were built, large portions of Puna remain completely off-grid.

Acquiring a post office box in Puna’s central town, Pahoa, can take years, and lines often stretch around the block. Some people have their mail sent to their parents’ or friends’ houses. Others drive to Hilo if they can get a post office box there.

Getting to Hilo can be a problem unto itself, especially during rush hour or in an emergency.

The main artery between Puna and Hilo, Highway 130, can be a nightmare. Although only 19 miles separate Pahoa and Hilo, the journey can easily take an hour and a half during heavy commute times when an estimated 20,200 drivers are on the road.

It’s only a two-lane road in some stretches with traffic lights and vehicles backed up for miles, according to Rep. Greggor Ilagan, who represents Puna.

Even on weekends, the traffic can be bad. And if there’s a fatal accident, people can be stuck in their vehicles for hours.

Constituents call it “Carmageddon,” said San Buenaventura.


Many homes in Puna are completely off the grid. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Many homes in Puna are completely off the grid. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The unpaved roads in subdivisions combined with a traffic-snarled main artery create worry for first responders who must bring people to the hospital in Hilo or respond to structure fires or other emergencies.

“The roads get washed out and it’s a little more rough, and a lot of times there’s overgrown trees,” said Hawaii County Assistant Fire Chief Darwin Okinaka.

Many of the unpaved roads are privately owned and require four-wheel drive to navigate. Sometimes they’re blocked off intentionally to keep people out. Hundreds of miles of road in Puna are considered “roads in limbo,” meaning no one has claimed jurisdiction over them so they often go unmaintained.

Long Distances To Hospital Care

Steve Sparks, a homeowner in the Leilani Estates subdivision, has been advocating for years for Puna to have its own hospital — in large part due to the traffic and infrastructure problems.

“If you get sick or have a stroke in Seaview, it can be an hour and forty minutes to the hospital,” he said. “They can only do so much for you in the ambulance.”

Sparks is board president of Puna Community Medical Center Foundation, a nonprofit raising money to build a hospital, women’s health and birthing center, dental clinic and a Hawaiian healing center on a medical campus on a 5-acre parcel near Pahoa. It’s a $75 million project, according to a presentation he gave in Pahoa last week.

So far, the group has a $750,000 grant from the state for planning and design, he said.

Medical care is limited in Puna. Most people need to travel to Hilo for anything serious or even for basic procedures.

Some 37% of patients using the emergency rooms, operating rooms or hospital beds at Hilo Medical Center are from Puna. And 45% of clinic visits are made by Puna residents, said Elena Cabatu, hospital spokeswoman.

Luana Jones, right, and Steve Sparks, president of Puna Community Medical Center Foundation and resident of Leilani Estates, are raising money to build a medical center in Puna. Courtesy: Steve Sparks

A hospital would not only improve quality of life for kupuna, keiki and others in Puna but it would add jobs to a region with high levels of poverty, Sparks said.

The 71-year-old is thinking about his own future in Puna, a place he moved to from the San Francisco Bay Area more than 20 years ago, fleeing crowds and congestion. Sparks wants to age in place but options for senior housing or gerontology in Puna are extremely limited.

As he moves deeper into his golden years, he’s thinking of basic amenities he’d like to have as well. He’s fine with his catchment system now, but one day he’d like to turn on his tap and have county water flow out.

“At 71, I don’t mind changing the filters and sending water samples to Oahu for testing. At 81, I’m not too sure I’ll be able to keep doing that,” he said.

While Puna has deep-seated challenges, the district also has major things going for it.

“The great strength of Puna and East Hawaii is we work together. We collaborate really well,” said Paul Norman, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness and connect families with social services.

During the Kilauea eruption, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were shocked by the coordinated relief effort the community had already mounted by itself.

“That’s something we can offer other communities,” Norman said.

Residents say Puna’s strength and resilience comes from colorful characters, its wide open spaces and sense of endless possibility.

At the same time, they’re mindful of the drawbacks and the work that lies ahead. Pickler, the tarot card reader, said Puna is “kind of like the Deep South” in the U.S.

“The South is looked at as one armpit of the nation, and Puna is the other armpit,” he said. “It’s kind of backward here. But it’s a lot of fun – like the Wild West.”

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