Mike McConnell was scared to go outside, even for a walk.
After surviving a near-fatal sepsis infection he’d tried to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but it was proving difficult to actualize with the coronavirus surging across his home in San Diego, California.
“It was kind of like the Walking Dead just trying to avoid everybody,” said the 53-year-old financial adviser.
So McConnell called a realtor in Hawaii, a place he’d only ever been on vacation, and began browsing properties over FaceTime. In October, he bought a $1.2m house on the rural north shore of Kauai without even seeing it in-person.
“When I landed at the airport it was like, ‘What did I really buy?’” McConnell said. “But the first time I walked in the house I was stoked.”
McConnell isn’t alone. The newfound freedoms of remote working have prompted a wave of people to flee the US mainland for the Hawaiian islands. While the total number of relocatees is unknown, signs point towards a major influx. Real estate agents say demand has reached a fever pitch. A scheme backed by local business owners to sponsor remote-workers’ flights to Honolulu, in exchange for community service, received more than 50,000 applications for just 50 slots.
Some newcomers are making good on a long-held dream, while others are moving rather spontaneously, without knowing how long they’ll stay. They are coming for the climate, the scenery, the abundance of year-round outdoor activities. Many are fleeing virus-hotspots; Hawaii has maintained some of the lowest rates of Covid infections in the nation throughout the pandemic.
Among them are tech workers from Silicon Valley, couples forced by the pandemic into early retirement and parents seizing the opportunity to enroll their children in private schools offering in-person classes. There are also a number of prominent new Hawaii denizens. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, is riding out the pandemic on Kauai, where he owns a 700-acre estate. Larry Ellison, the founder of software giant Oracle who owns 98% of Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island of Lanai, announced that he now lives in Hawaii full-time.
And while the influx has been a boon for some, it has also increased tensions – exacerbating a housing market that is already unaffordable for many locals. And, for some, it has brought back painful historical memories of outsiders exploiting the Hawaii lifestyle with little regard for the consequences.
“People have been jumping ship and staying in Hawaii since (Captain) Cook,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, the chairman of the state Land Use Commission. “Some people will go back and some people will stay. If you really only plan to try to ride out the pandemic here, just please try to do the least amount of damage possible.”
A booming housing market
For years Hawaii has lost more residents than it gains. Many people, especially young adults, are driven away by the lack of job prospects, the scarcity of affordable housing, and the fact that Hawaii has the nation’s lowest average wage when adjusted for the exorbitant cost of living.
While it’s not yet clear if the wave of new pandemic residents has fully reversed this trend, the evidence of a shift is clearly visible in the housing market, where realtors say demand has skyrocketed.
In the second half of 2020, single-family homes that would typically take several months or years to sell attracted new buyers in a matter of hours or days, Hawaii realtors say. Bidding wars are now commonplace, driving home sale prices to new heights.
Additionally, realtors say properties that would once have been purchased as vacation homes are increasingly being sold as owner-occupied.
Virtual house tours are aiding the real estate frenzy, allowing people to make offers on properties, despite travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, from thousands of miles away.
“I had one scenario where these people made a pre-emptive bid way above the asking price on the first day the property hit the market,” said the Big Island realtor Beth Thoma Robinson. “I had to tell all the other prospective buyers that if they want to get in the game at all, they would have to get in a huge bidding war.”
Meanwhile, some people who grew up in Hawaii but moved to the mainland have been lured back by the ability to “work from wherever” while enjoying an out-of-state paycheck. Hannah Sirois, a partner at Corcoran Pacific Properties on Kauai, said she recently showed a property to a Facebook employee who came home to live with family while she looks for her own house.
“You do have an influx of people who have Kauai in their soul who lived here before and never really lost that feeling of wanting what life is like here,” she Sirois said.
But while the booming market may be good news for the industry, it is pushing up prices for many local families.
Hawaii has the highest proportion of multigenerational homes in the country, with about one in five residents living with three or more generations under one roof, according to US census data.
Tourism jobs losses resulting from the pandemic’s crippling effect on travel is forcing some Hawaii families to pack even more relatives into already crowded conditions, said Karen Ono, the executive officer of the Kauai Board of Realtors.
“There’s this middle gap of people who are leaving the island because they will not be able to get a house because they make too much money to fall in the affordable housing category and they don’t have enough to afford the market price,” Ono said. “The gap is our firefighters, our nurses, our doctors – all the people that we need here.”
‘This isn’t a place to escape and drink a Mai Tai’
The arrival of newcomers in Hawaii has a controversial history. The brisk depopulation of the Native Hawaiian people in the early 1800s was in part due to western diseases introduced by white businessmen who forced Hawaiians off their lands to build sprawling pineapple and sugarcane plantations.
The decline of Hawaii’s native population during this era – and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the US government – remains a source of intergenerational trauma and anger toward outsiders.
As a result, the idea of incentivising Hawaiian escapism during a public health crisis hasn’t gone down well with everyone.
Although Hawaii is in the enviable position of having the nation’s lowest Covid-19 death rate, the virus has decimated the tourism industry that buoys the state economy, driving the unemployment rate from the nation’s lowest to its highest. With fewer airplanes coming in, hotels sit empty. An unprecedented number of residents are struggling with food insecurity as they face almost a year of joblessness.
So when it comes to moneyed newcomers, some locals are in short supply of the aloha spirit that Hawaii is famous for.
“Participation in the community is more important than anything and I don’t want to discount that transplant residents or even tourists can be a part of that,” said Tamara Paltin, a Maui county councilmember. “But this is not a place for you to escape to your own solitary world and work behind a computer screen and go to the beach and drink a Mai Tai.”
But the state also stands to benefit from the crush of new residents, many with plush paychecks, who could help the local economy recover and recoup pandemic-related losses to the state’s tax base.
Movers and Shakas, the business-backed program to lure remote workers to Hawaii that saw 50,000 applicants, is banking on precisely that idea.
George Yarbrough is the founder of Hub Coworking Hawaii, a co-working space that’s partnering with Movers and Shakers to connect participants with desks. He believes a structured integration of outsiders into the Hawaii community and culture offers a chance to educate them about unique and tightly held customs and values.
Don’t take mangoes from your neighbor’s yard without permission. Remove your shoes before entering a home. Don’t sit your butt on the table of a picnic bench where people eat. Drive slowly. Treat elders with great respect. Don’t show up to a new surf break and steal all the best waves.
“During the summer we saw more and more new faces out at south shore surf breaks,” Yarbrough said. “Sometimes people are just clueless.”
So far, McConnell said the reality of living in Hawaii doesn’t stray far from the fantasy. The state’s low virus counts, partly owed to its strict pandemic travel rules, have allowed him to freely enjoy Hawaii’s pristine, uncrowded beaches and other trademark delights.
As he adapts to island life, McConnell said he’s just trying to fit in.
“I don’t want to bring California with me,” McConnell said. “I like it here the way it is.”