Despite the threats of hurricanes, tsunamis, vog, earthquakes — and now another eruption from Mauna Loa — people continue to move to the more affordable areas of Hawaii island, including the Leilani Estates subdivision that was overrun by Kilauea lava in 2018.
The reasons for buying vary among newcomers, retirees and working local families: the allure of living among 11 of the planet’s 13 ecosystems; the offer of cooler climates depending on the elevation on Hawaii island’s volcanic slopes (there are five); and, most importantly, more land and more house at less cost.
The risks that people are willing to take under the threat of multiple natural disasters ultimately underscore the need for more affordable housing all across Hawaii, said state Rep. Jeanne Kapela (D, Keaukaha- Orchidlands Estates-Ainaloa- Hawaiian Acres).
“They’re moving to what I call crisis areas that are dangerous,” Kapela said. “We need to build truly affordable housing. The lack of access to Hawaii only contributes to the brain drain. Your family can’t thrive when you’re just working to survive.”
Hawaii island has Hawaii’s fastest growing and second-largest population, with 200,000 residents.
But between the past eruptions of Mauna Loa in 1984 and 2002 — 20 years ago — the slopes of Mauna Loa saw $2.3 billion in construction, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Its expanding population and increasing development mean that risk from volcano hazards will continue to grow,” according to the USGS.
Since 1843, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times in a history filled with unpredictability. Lava has erupted all the way to the Kona Coast to the west in “a matter of hours,” according to the USGS — and twice in the 1800s covered land now within the Hilo city limits in the opposite direction.
Over the past 1,000 years, eruptions have covered areas equal to the size of Oahu and Maui, according to the USGS.
More recently, construction in areas most at risk of a volcanic eruption — known as Zones 1 and 2 — “has screeched to a halt,” said Jessica Gauthier, president of the Hawaii Island Realtors association.
But people continue to buy existing homes that were surrounded by the two-year eruption of Kilauea, even with the relative unavailability of insurance.
Over the past three months, there have been five home sales in Leilani Estates alone — home to Fissure 8 that roared like a dragon as it spewed 2,100-degree lava reaching more than 200 feet into the air.
Left behind is a cinder cone of more than 100 feet that’s been renamed Ahu‘aila‘au and will take decades to cool.
Homes in Leilani Estates had a median sales price of $275,000 over the past three months, Gauthier said.
One — a two-bedroom, two-bath house on an acre of land with a distant ocean view from Malama Street — was bought with all cash for $575,000 despite the ever-present reminder of Kilauea’s destruction, she said.
“You can’t be in that neighborhood and not see the lava,” Gauthier said. “Fissure 8, you can’t miss it.”
“It tells me that people are willing to take the risk to be in this beautiful, unique place,” Gauthier said. “People make emotional decisions and are willing to take risks. But if it (active lava) comes back and they lose it, it’s gone. There is no insurance.”
As the eruption from Kilauea ended, the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an influx of workers from the continent who were able to work remotely. An unknown number began renting on the eastern side of the island, may have fallen in love with the lifestyle and are suspected of buying property.
Now Hawaii County Councilmember Ashley Lehualani Kierkiewicz — who represents the vast Puna District, which is larger than the island of Oahu, regularly sees sometimes-dense traffic filled with out-of-state license plates.
“I’m seeing more cars on the road and a lot of license plates from Vermont, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and, of course, California, all across the continental U.S.,” she said. “They’re purchasing homes on Hawaii island and especially in the Puna region. You see these guys on the road and the traffic is horrific. If there’s a car accident, it’s like carmagedon. Everyone’s late for work. Kids are late for school.”
Compared with other high-priced areas, including Kailua-Kona, Puna real estate is cheaper, Kierkiewicz said.
“But for local families, $350,000 is not affordable,” she said.
And there are other downsides: catchment systems for water and cesspools, or septic tanks, for sewage, she said, along with commutes to Hilo “for everything.”
She bought her three-bedroom, two-bath home in Hawaiian Paradise Park in 2016 for $270,000 but prices have only gone up because of “all these folks moving in.”
Her neighbor recently bought a similar home for over $500,000.
For people moving into riskier lava zones, “I don’t know what’s in the psyche of these folks,” Kierkiewicz said. “We’ll see what happens when we have another volcano erupting. It’s a huge risk, but clearly it’s a risk that people are willing to take. But the dream of acquiring a home as a local family, it diminishes.”
The desire for cheaper real estate on the east side of Hawaii island can be measured by the traffic along Daniel K. Inouye Highway from commuters traveling to visitor-industry jobs in Kailua-Kona and on the daily flights from the Big Island filled with trades workers in yellow shirts and other Oahu commuters, said state Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D, Hawaiian Paradise Park-Orchidlands Estates-Ainaloa-Hawaiian Acres), who commutes to Oahu during the legislative session.
Her district includes the coastal community of Kalapana, which was buried in 1990 by slow-moving pahoehoe that oozed into Pahoa, leaving just a few isolated homes along KalapanaKapoho Road.
“You see the yellow shirts during the commute,” San Buenaventura said. “Because on the Big Island, you can afford a house. You can always find parking. It’s a good place to live.”
New home buyers may be lured by the beauty of Hawaii island over the risks, said Darryl Oliveira, the former head of Hawaii County Civil Defense.
“They like the remoteness. They like the environment. They like the beauty,” he said. “If you’re coming here from North Dakota in the dead of winter, it’s not obvious there are risks. … It is a bit of a gamble.”
State Sen. Lorraine Inouye, (D, Hilo-Keaukaha) expects the population of the Big Island to continue to grow despite its history of natural disasters and the current eruption of Mauna Loa.
Inouye, a former County Council member and Big Island mayor, said, “Hawaii island has always been the future for the state in terms of population growth. It’s the home of agriculture and sustainability for food production. … The Big Island is just a little more attractive. It’ll continue to grow.”
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