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The Price of a Place Called Home on Oahu
Keopu Reelitz hopes to buy a home near her ancestors, but as housing prices rise, her dream slips further away.

About the Author

  • Keopulaulani Reelitz
    Keopulaulani Reelitz, who is part Native Hawaiian, returned home to Oahu in 2010 after pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Chicago and a law degree in Tucson, Arizona.

I have a dream that one day I can purchase a house and raise a child in the Kaneohe neighborhood I grew up in.

It’s a place where my maternal grandfather and grandmother raised their three kids, and where my mother and father raised their three kids — my two older brothers and me.

It’s where I learned to ride a bike.

When I was pursuing higher education on the continent, it is the place I returned to every year.

It is my ultimate definition of a safe space.

There’s only one problem: A house in that neighborhood has an average asking price of about $800,000.

Keopulaulani Reelitz and Jason

Keopu Reelitz and Jason Ubay, strolling around the neighborhood where she grew up on the day of their engagement party.

Aaron Yoshino

If my husband and I set aside 10 percent of our gross income each year — before taxes and medical — it would take us more than a decade to save for a 20-percent down payment. This means my dream is more like a figment of my imagination than a realistic goal.

So we have a contingency dream: live in Waimanalo, where my ohana has significant historical ties. That’s a place where my great-great-great-grandfather, John Adams Cummins, minister of Foreign Affairs to King Kalakaua, entertained fellow alii (nobility) and foreign dignitaries at his Mauna Loke estate. It’s where my brother celebrated his first luau and his high school graduation.

When I returned home to Oahu in 2010, Waimanalo was the place I’d escape to on my road bike.

The dream of a home in Waimanlo doesn’t seem as far-fetched considering a cursory survey of fee simple houses there. They start at around $400,000 (even if some sell for well over $3 million).

It’s a little more realistic — but still at least five years out for my husband and I.

I spent eight years away from Hawaii pursuing education and dreams in my late teens and twenties.

Keopu Reelitz and her father for Connections

The bond between Keopu Reelitz and her father Steve was on display at a party in Honolulu in 2008.

Courtesy of Keopu Reelitz

Where I last lived, in Tucson, Arizona, the median home sells for $158,000. It would take us just two to three years to save up a 20-percent down payment there. And, in the decade it would take us to save up for a down payment on Oahu, we would be able to buy a house outright in Arizona.

I want the very fabric of my children’s existence to be intertwined with the lands our family has been a part of for so long.

But when my father suddenly passed away in 2010, my home and kuleana called me back to the islands.

Though I still think fondly of the home I made in Tucson, there’s no doubt in my mind that my place is here in Hawaii.

I live and work for the Hawaiian community because it is my kuleana. I, like many others here, don’t feel like I can leave my kuleana behind for a more affordable home elsewhere. This is both a responsibility and a privilege.

At the end of the day, the only real home for me is here in Hawaii.

I’m 30 now. Every year I feel closer to becoming a fully functional adult and I dream a little more of the childhood I want for my kids. And when I think of that ideal childhood, it’s in Koolaupoko, the district made up of ahupuaa (the subdivision) from Waimanalo up along the Windward Coast of Oahu to Kualoa.

In some ways, it’s nostalgia. I want to tell my children of the nights spent at Heeia Park — what my parents told me was Ulumau village — while my dad’s halau danced. In other ways, it’s because I want my children to know where they come from.

I would be nowhere without the sacrifices my family made in our house on the hill. Yet most of all, I want the very fabric of my children’s existence to be intertwined with the lands our family has been a part of for so long — from my grandfather’s paintings of Kaneohe to the hillside my brother now terraces with mala (garden).

With every year that passes though, the reality of us owning a house close to my ohana’s slips away more and more. Home prices are rising there, even when they fall in other parts of the United States.

My husband and I have been incredibly blessed in our education and careers, having three advanced education degrees between the two of us and minimal student debt.

Still, we are only able to save what we can because my husband works long hours and I work two jobs.

I know the life of my children will be very different from my days growing up in Kaneohe — where I knew I was almost home when I saw the horses on the corner lot.

Connections - Keopu Reelitz as a toddler in her father's arms

Keopu Reelitz as a toddler, sheltered by her father’s arms

Courtesy of Keopu Reelitz

It’s certain that their lives will be vastly different from the lives of my parents, who were both raised in Koolaupoko when streams flowed more heavily and before access was blocked by development.

I think I’m OK with my children never having such experiences, so long as they have the opportunity to be a part of Koolaupoko’s future.

After all that Koolaupoko has done for me, the least I can do is to find a way to give it another generation to look after its future.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, share it through Connections via the red button at the top of this screen or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

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