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My Search For An Affordable Life on Oahu
Saddened by the gloomy weather in Washington state, Robert Kramer set out to find out if he and his wife could, on a fixed income, afford a perch in "paradise."

About the Author

  • Mark F. Kramer
    Mark, now retired, volunteers with the Institute of Human Services in Waianae to help find solutions for Oahu's homeless crisis.

Some people come to Hawaii the first time expecting to stay a couple of weeks, but within days, they start thinking about making the islands into a permanent home.

Five years ago, I was one of those people.

I wondered whether my wife and I could afford to move to Oahu on a limited budget and a restricted income?

But the “best weather on the planet,” as Hawaii News Now weathercaster Guy Hagi likes to proclaim, is a big plus for someone like me. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, and I lived in the dreary, gloomy Pacific Northwest.

Hawaii also has a growing economy and a low unemployment rate, which also carries weight for someone like me who resided far from Seattle and Portland, the two economic engines in the region.

There are also Hawaii’s warm Pacific waters, which are nothing like the Pacific Northwest’s ocean where swimming can lead to hypothermia. And the tropical beaches bring back pleasant childhood memories of southern California, where I grew up.

On the negative side, moving to Hawaii means facing the highest housing prices of any state; wages are way out of whack with the cost of living, which means much higher transportation, clothing, food and electricity prices.

We put our modest 1,200-square-foot mainland home up for sale and I began searching online for housing options on Oahu that would fit our budget.

We quickly found a possible abode — which turned out not to be a house. Our budget allowed for a condominium apartment that was about half the size of our home. It was located on the Waianae Coast, in Makaha Valley, where housing prices are some of the island’s lowest.

It took almost a year to sell our house in 2011 but, with an offer in hand, we purchased the Makaha condo and had a little nest egg left over. Today that same unit would cost about one-third more than we got it for, but compared to some places it might still be considered affordable.

Sunset offshore Waianae Boat Harbor with lone fisherman. Homeless camp. 14 oct 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Kramer enjoys beautiful sunsets in the area. This one is seen from the Waianae Boat Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

After our move to Oahu at the end of 2011 and, after four months of searching, I landed a part-time job as database manager in the development department of a non-profit organization at Pearl Harbor. It was something of a dream job and the sort of position unavailable to me in the northwest corner of Washington state, where the economy had been flat for decades and the employment opportunities limited.

It came with a price, however — a five and a half hour round trip bus commute, which is by far the longest to work-and-home traveling I’ve ever had to do.

What about clothing costs? I’ve found living in shorts and t-shirts to be very affordable.

Hawaii’s high housing costs haven’t had the same affect on us in Waianae that they might have elsewhere on Oahu. The employment opportunities have proved to be much better than those in my former home.

And although the wages aren’t commensurate with metropolitan areas similar in price to Honolulu, it was about on par with what I would have earned back in our community in the Pacific Northwest.

But what about the other costs?

Before leaving the Washington I did a comparison of our condo’s monthly homeowners’ association fee and the monthly costs of maintaining and servicing our mainland house.

Our condo fee is all inclusive — central air conditioning is part of the deal — with the only leftover expense being phone and internet service. This deal may not be good for some of our seasonal neighbors,who only spend part of the year in their condos, but for us full-timers the $728 monthly fee compares very favorably to our mainland home costs even though the state of Washington has some of the nation’s lowest electric rates.

What about clothing costs? I’ve found living in shorts and t-shirts to be very affordable. We bid aloha to shopping for winter coats, long-sleeve flannel shirts and long pants.

And then there is the price of food.

Local produce for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer's Market held near Sears. Saturday. 13 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Local produce, like this fruit for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer’s Market in Aiea in February, tends to be expensive compared to most of the mainland. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As customers of a big-box, warehouse store with mainland-style prices, we’ve found no difference in the cost of many commodities. We watch for sales at other grocery retailers, but do acknowledge our monthly food bill may be a bit higher.

Food costs get magnified when you eat out. Across the board, from fast food to fine dining, we’ve discovered there is a 30 percent to 60 percent premium on Oahu’s restaurants. We have cut back.

Our main entertainment option, on the other hand, actually costs less on Oahu. Movie ticket prices are less expensive than where we lived before. Maybe this will change when a new premium cinema opens next year in Kapolei, but for now it is true.

As with eating out, car ownership costs are significantly higher here on Oahu than they were on the mainland. I discovered that licensing, insurance and safety check prices run about $1,000 per year, and that’s without the vehicle ever leaving its parking space.

Add in fuel prices, which are among the highest in the country, and driving here costs me about one-third more than it did in Washington.

That led us to change. Several months back our 22-year old Buick failed to pass the safety inspection because of weather-checked tires. When our car’s A/C compressor went out soon after that, I donated the Buick and my wife and I now utilize TheBus as our main transportation option. My wife is a senior and I have a disability pass so we enjoy unlimited rides for just $30 per year. Our transportation costs have plummeted.

In the rural county north of Seattle where we lived before, there was very little public transit. Here on the Waianae Coast, TheBus passes near our front door and goes anywhere we need to be.

I realize many, many people have written regarding their struggles with Hawaii’s high cost of living. Yet I get the feeling through their writing that many of them would do most anything to stay in the islands. For those who couldn’t stick around, I often pick up on a sense of regret, a solid case of the “if onlys.”

Everyone’s situation is different. Some people reach the tipping point and decide to leave sooner, and for different reasons, than others. Some people hang on by their fingertips until, finally, the scale tips and tosses them out. And some people find a way to stay.

Being a resident of a state in the middle of the Pacific sometimes just isn’t doable when there’s a family to feed and house, and sometimes living in paradise isn’t, by itself, worth the price.

But for me, an older person affected by SAD and arthritis, I appreciate these islands every day for their sunny weather, temperate climes and a tropical existence that, for me, has — at least so far — been entirely affordable.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation about this story, or to discuss broader practical and political solutions for the islands.