The Housing Crisis in Hawaii

The tourism industry in Hawaii is successful and continues to grow as Hawaii is further globally marketed as an idyllic holiday destination. In 2019, before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 10 million tourists visited Hawaii. In 2021, the number of tourists visiting Hawaii remained at 6 million, despite ongoing travel restrictions.

Although Hawaii has reaped the economic benefits of tourism, there have been growing tensions surrounding the prominence of tourism. Hawaii’s native population has protested against increasing house prices and the environmental impact of Hawaii’s large tourism industry. The housing crisis in Hawaii has forced many people into poverty and even homelessness.

Poverty in Hawaii

The poverty level in Hawaii grew from 9% in 2018 to 15% in 2022. John Fink, the Aloha United Way CEO, stated in December 2022 that roughly 200,000 people in Hawaii were living in some degree of poverty. Due to growing financial insecurity, many Hawaiian families cannot afford basic necessities, such as housing and food. In terms of the most affected ethnic group, “Native Hawaiians [have] the highest poverty levels at 27%.” In 2022, nearly half of Hawaii’s youth population resided in households unable to afford basic life necessities.

The Cost of Residency In Hawaii

The housing crisis in Hawaii stems from rapid increases in housing prices over the last few years. The average price of a house in O’ahu, the third largest island in Hawaii, increased from $789,000 to $1.15 million between 2019 and 2022. The challenge of maintaining residency in Hawaii is further amplified by the fact that “out-of-state buyers, who routinely bid well above the listing price” purchase 25% of sold homes.

High house prices have disproportionately affected Kānaka Maoli, also referred to as Native Hawaiians. Many people who have lived in Hawaii for generations can no longer afford the cost of residency and have to move elsewhere. The Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) help to ease the impact of the housing crisis in Hawaii. The HPHA maintains 6,000 units that have an average rent of less than $400. This scheme is used to support low-income residents who cannot otherwise afford housing. The DHHL provides Native Hawaiians with 99-year leases at $1 a year: as of July 2022, 28,000 Hawaiians remained on the waiting list.

Hawaii’s Tourism Industry 

Hawaii’s tourism industry is one of the biggest in the world. However, the recent increase in tourism, including “tens of thousands of extra” visitors, has put pressure on the industry and caused residents and businesses to suffer. With 30 miles of beaches that “draw in up to 300,000 arrivals each month,” Maui experienced a water shortage in 2022.

The Council for Native Hawaii Advancement formulated a response to the tourism crisis in Hawaii. It pledged to spend $27 million on managing tourism over the next two-and-a-half years. The money will help the government track where tourists frequently go during their stay through a “Hawaii visitor smartphone app.” Hawaii’s government hopes to redirect visitors to new and less-frequented attractions, to assuage the strain on businesses and tourism.

Environmental Concerns 

The housing crisis in Hawaii has had an environmental impact on its wildlife and nature reserves. Significant investment into infrastructure, such as hotels and resorts on many of Hawaii’s islands, has drastically reduced the number of natural habitats left in Hawaii. With over 25,000 native species, Hawaii accounts for over 44% of the United States’ endangered animals. However, due to Hawaii’s farmland becoming less fertile over the past few decades, much of Hawaii’s wildlife has dwindled in number and become far less active. Additionally, many native Hawaiians have left the fishing industry because of decreased marine life on Hawaii’s shores.

Excessive construction on Hawaii’s land has also resulted in residents receiving foreclosure notices on their properties and being “forced off of their land as a result of a new golf course or resort being built.” Many Native Hawaiians are concerned about the natural beauty of their island being destroyed by excessive tourism. In May 2023, Hawaii’s government hoped to implement a tourist charge that required all visitors to pay a conservation fee of $50 if they visited Hawaii’s parks and nature trails. While the Hawaiian politicians involved have not yet passed the legislation, the implementation of the tourist fee looks increasingly likely.

Looking Ahead  

The housing crisis in Hawaii has worsened significantly in recent years as a result of Hawaii’s growing tourism industry. Rising house prices have resulted in many Hawaiians experiencing a declining standard of living. Residing in the country has become so expensive that people who are unable to afford basic necessities have to seek out subsidized living. Housing support schemes managed by the DHHL and HPHA help Native Hawaiians to maintain residency in their generational lands. However, high demand and a limited supply of available housing units challenge these schemes. But while it appears that there is a need for significant efforts to overcome the housing crisis in Hawaii, ongoing plans and initiatives show promising signs for the future.

Jennifer Preece
Photo: Flickr