Mike McConnell was afraid to go outside even if he was walking.
After surviving a near-fatal sepsis infection, he tried to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but it proved difficult to bring the coronavirus to fruition in his San Diego, California home.
“It was like The Walking Dead just to dodge everyone,” said the 53-year-old financial advisor.
So McConnell called a real estate agent in Hawaii, a place he’d previously only been on vacation, and started looking for properties on FaceTime. In October, he bought a $ 1.2 million home on rural Kauai’s north coast without seeing it in person.
“When I landed at the airport it was like, ‘What did I really buy?'” McConnell said. “But when I went into the house for the first time, I was thrilled.”
McConnell is not alone. The newfound freedoms to work remotely have led a wave of people to flee the US mainland to the Hawaiian Islands. While the total number of resettlers is unknown, signs point to a large influx. Real estate agents say the demand has reached a fever level. A program supported by local business owners to sponsor remote worker flights to Honolulu in exchange for community service received more than 50,000 applications for just 50 slots.
Some newcomers fulfill a long-cherished dream, while others tend to move spontaneously without knowing how long they will stay. They come for the climate, the landscape, and the abundance of year-round outdoor activities. Many are fleeing virus hotspots. Hawaii maintained some of the lowest rates of Covid infection in the nation during the pandemic.
Among them are technicians from Silicon Valley, couples forced into early retirement by the pandemic, and parents taking the opportunity to enroll their children in private schools that offer face-to-face tuition. There are also a number of prominent new Hawaiian residents. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is riding the pandemic on Kauai, where he owns a 700-acre estate. Larry Ellison, founder of software giant Oracle, which owns 98% of Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island of Lanai, announced that he now lives full time in Hawaii.
A beach goer wearing a protective mask in Honolulu, Hawaii. The state has maintained some of the lowest levels of Covid-19. Photo: Marco Garcia / Reuters
And while the influx has been a boon to some, it has also increased tensions – exacerbating a real estate market that is already unaffordable for many locals. And for some, it has brought back painful historical memories of outsiders who took advantage of the Hawaiian lifestyle without considering the consequences.
“People have jumped ships since then and stayed in Hawaii [Captain] Cook, ”said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, Chairman of the State Land Use Commission. “Some people will return and some will stay. If all you really intend to do here is to fight the pandemic, please try to do the least amount of damage possible. “
A booming real estate market
Hawaii has lost more residents than it gained for years. Many people, especially young adults, are displaced by the lack of job prospects, the lack of affordable housing, and the fact that Hawaii has the lowest median wage in the country when you factor in the exorbitant cost of living.
While it is not yet clear whether the wave of new pandemic residents has completely reversed this trend, signs of a shift are clearly visible in the real estate market, where the demand for real estate agents has increased.
In the second half of 2020, single-family homes, which would typically take months or years to sell, began attracting new buyers in a matter of hours or days, Hawaii realtors say. Bidding wars are now the order of the day and are driving home selling prices to new heights.
Additionally, real estate agents say properties that would previously have been bought as vacation homes are increasingly being sold as condos.
Virtual house tours support the real estate hype and enable people to make offers on real estate from thousands of kilometers away, despite travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines.
“I had a scenario where on the first day the property went on the market, these people made a preventive bid that was way above the asking price,” said Big Island real estate agent Beth Thoma Robinson. “I had to tell all other potential buyers that they would have to get into a huge bidding war if they wanted to get into the game at all.”
Meanwhile, some people who grew up in Hawaii but moved to the mainland have been lured back by the ability to “work from anywhere” while enjoying a paycheck out of state. Hannah Sirois, a partner at Corcoran Pacific Properties in Kauai, said she recently showed a Facebook employee a property who came home to live with her family while she looked for her own home.
“You have an influx of people who have Kauai in their souls, who have lived here before and have never really lost the feeling of wanting what life is like here,” she told Sirois.
One program offers free flights to remote workers moving to Hawaii. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / REX / Shutterstock
While the booming market may be good news for the industry, it is driving prices up for many local families.
Hawaii has the highest percentage of multi-generation homes in the country. According to US census data, roughly one in five residents of three or more generations lives under one roof.
The loss of tourism jobs due to the crippling impact of the pandemic on travel is forcing some Hawaiian families to move even more relatives into already overcrowded conditions, said Karen Ono, executive director of the Kauai Board of Realtors.
“There’s this middle gap between people who leave the island because they can’t get a home, because they make too much money to fall into the affordable housing category, and because they don’t have enough to afford the market price “So Ono said. “The void is our firefighters, our nurses, our doctors – all the people we need here.”
“This is not a place to escape and have a mai tai.”
The arrival of newcomers to Hawaii has a controversial history. The vigorous Aboriginal depopulation of Hawaii in the early 19th century was due in part to Western diseases caused by white businessmen who forced Hawaiians off their lands to build sprawling pineapple and sugar cane plantations.
The decline in native Hawaiian populations during this period – and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the US government in 1893 – continues to be a source of intergenerational trauma and anger towards outsiders.
As a result, the idea of creating incentives for people to flee Hawaii during a public health crisis has not gone down well with everyone.
Although Hawaii is in the enviable position of having the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the country, the virus has decimated the tourism industry, which is boosting the state economy, and has pushed the unemployment rate from the lowest to the highest in the nation. As fewer planes arrive, the hotels are empty. An unprecedented number of residents are grappling with food insecurity as they have been unemployed for almost a year.
When it comes to greedy newcomers, some locals lack the aloha spirit that Hawaii is famous for.
“Attending the community is more important than anything, and I don’t want to ignore the fact that transplant residents or even tourists can be a part of it,” said Tamara Paltin, a councilor for Maui County. “But this is not a place where you can escape into your own lonely world and work behind a computer screen and go to the beach and have a mai tai.”
Many hope that newcomers will make an effort to understand Hawaiian culture rather than just adopting an idealized lifestyle. Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
But the state will also benefit from the crowd of new residents, many of whom have large paychecks that could help the local economy offset and offset pandemic-related losses in the state’s tax base.
Movers and Shakas, the company-backed program to attract remote workers to Hawaii that saw 50,000 applicants in attendance, is based on exactly this idea.
George Yarbrough is the founder of Hub Coworking Hawaii, a collaborative space that works with Movers and Shakas to connect attendees with desks. He believes that structured integration of outsiders into the Hawaiian community and culture provides an opportunity to educate them about unique and rigorous customs and values.
Don’t take mangoes out of your neighbor’s yard without permission. Take off your shoes before entering a house. Don’t put your bum on the table of a picnic bench where people eat. Drive slowly. Treat the elders with great respect. Don’t come for a new break from surfing and steal the best waves.
“During the summer we saw more and more new faces when surf breaks on the south coast,” said Yarbrough. “Sometimes people are just clueless.”
So far, McConnell has said that the reality of life in Hawaii is not far from fantasy. The state’s low virus counts, in part due to its strict pandemic travel rules, have allowed it to freely enjoy Hawaii’s pristine, uncrowded beaches and other branded goodies.
As he adapts to island life, McConnell says he’s just trying to adapt.
“I don’t want to bring California,” said McConnell. “I like it here the way it is.”