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Priced out of paradise, Native Hawaiians make Las Vegas home

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LAS VEGAS >> When Pauline Kauinani Souza was a child in Hawaii, she spent early mornings watering her grandfather’s watermelons and papaya trees.

Her family lived frugally, eating homemade bread and heating water over a fire for bathing. But the no-frills life came with the ultimate perk: living near the beach and drifting off to sleep at night to the sound of waves gently crashing on the shore.

Now, at 80, Souza lives in Las Vegas, a desert city of neon reinvention far from the ocean and her ancestral home. It is not paradise, but it is full of Native Hawaiians like her who have flocked there in recent years for the endless entertainment, reasonable cost of living and something few people can find in Hawaii: a house they can afford.

“I own it outright,” she said proudly of her two-bedroom, ranch-style home in Las Vegas. “In Hawaii, there aren’t many people who can say that.”

Increasingly, Las Vegas is drawing Hawaiians who came to visit and decided to stay, convinced that an affordable faux version of the islands is better than an endless struggle to make ends meet in the real thing.

Between 2011 and 2021, the population of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, grew by about 40%, for a total of nearly 22,000 people. That was the greatest number of newcomers in that demographic in any county outside Hawaii, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. In that same period, the total population of Clark County grew by about 17%.

For many, the draw is real estate: Houses in the Las Vegas area have a median listing price of about $460,000, compared with about $800,000 in Honolulu, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data.

Americans migrating for cheaper housing is not unusual, as seen most dramatically in the decadeslong shift from the Northeast to the Sunbelt. But this migration from the impossibly lush natural landscape of the islands to the brash desert of Las Vegas is a particularly vivid glimpse of how the search for housing remakes the country in sometimes surprising ways.

The connection between Hawaii and Las Vegas stretches back decades, in large part due to the California Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. “The Cal,” which opened in 1975, has long catered to Hawaiians through special travel deals and targeted marketing. At the casino, dealers at the craps table wear Hawaiian shirts, guests dine on island specialties and signs on the hotel’s facade proclaim: “Aloha Spoken Here.”

Today, a flourishing Hawaiian community is scattered throughout what is informally known as the Ninth Island. Parents in Las Vegas eager to raise their children with Hawaiian traditions can enroll them in Hawaiian language classes or get them dance lessons at a local halau hula. This month, lei makers in Las Vegas are racing to fill a deluge of orders for high school and college graduations.

In Las Vegas, Hawaiians in search of home cooking can take their pick of local restaurants serving plate lunch and fresh poke. Spam musubi, a popular Hawaiian snack of rice and Spam wrapped in seaweed, and poi, a taro-based Hawaiian staple, are easy to find. Even Zippy’s, a popular Hawaiian restaurant chain, is poised to open a spot.

“What we’re doing is creating our own Hawaii,” Cece Cullen, 38, a Native Hawaiian, said at a lei festival this month at an office park in Henderson, a city just outside Las Vegas.

Cullen attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the early 2000s and later returned to Oahu. But life with a growing family was difficult. She and her husband, Nakoa Hoikaika Cullen, 37, worked multiple jobs and rented a modest 800-square-foot house. But their paychecks quickly disappeared.

“You get to the point where you’re like, is this it? Is this life?” she said.

In 2018, Cullen and her family moved back to Las Vegas. A few months into the pandemic, she and her husband bought a roughly 3,000-square-foot house on a quiet cul-de-sac. They are among the first in their family to be homeowners. And in Las Vegas, they live comfortably, raising four children.

Cullen, who teaches the Hawaiian language at local libraries, has made it a priority to keep her children connected to the islands’ culture.

“We got priced out of paradise,” she said. “But all these traditions, all our language, it’s part of our identity.”

In 2022, Hawaii had the highest cost of living out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. The state imports the vast majority of its food, making everyday groceries especially expensive. And strict regulations on building have contributed to housing shortages and prices out of reach for many.

Rep. Nadine Nakamura, the majority leader of the Hawaii state House, said that the state government recognizes the economic pressures on local residents and has been focused on expanding tax relief and building more affordable housing.

And while many Hawaiians leave for the mainland, in search of better jobs and housing, the islands’ natural splendor, and ohana, or family bonds, often pull them back, said Nakamura, a Democrat who represents parts of Kauai.

People are just drawn to the natural beauty of Hawaii, the camaraderie, the melting pot of ethnic groups and generally people who get along and support each other,” she said.

Far from the islands, Hawaiian transplants have found creative ways to keep their culture alive in the desert. After moving from Oahu to Las Vegas in 2014, Tiffanie Zuttermeister, 46, accepted that she would never be able to grow her own ti leaves, which are used for leis and hula skirts.

“At home, you can just walk in your backyard and pick all of that,” she said. “Here, it’s the desert, and it just doesn’t last.”

Still, Zuttermeister has managed to create a successful side business making leis for graduations and other events. Unlike other local lei makers, who resort to using plastic flowers, she seeks out fresh ones and orders ti leaves and orchids from Los Angeles or Hawaii.

“Being away from home, I miss the ocean, the mountains, the greenery,” she said one afternoon, deftly making a lei crown with daisies, carnations and baby’s breath. “But I don’t miss the cost.”

Neither do the Souzas.

More than two decades ago, “starry-eyed” on a trip to Las Vegas, Souza took her gambling winnings from the Cal and, on a whim, bought a $50,000 house in a local subdivision. By 2005, she and her husband had retired to Las Vegas. Their daughter had already moved to the area, and a son, Vincent Iokimo Souza, soon followed.

Vincent Souza, 56, found that his former career running a company that welcomed cruise ships to Hawaii translated easily to the entertainment world of the Las Vegas Strip. And in the years since, he has become a leader of the local Hawaiian community, teaching hula and performing traditional home blessings for new arrivals.

“We shouldn’t have had to have moved away from our island home because of the cost of living,” he said. “But when the islands are basically now a commodity, there’s only so much land to go around.”

On a recent afternoon, Frankie Sevilleja, 52, and his outrigger teammates struck out across Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas, driving their paddles into the water. Members of the 9th Island Outrigger Canoe Club practice a traditional Hawaiian sport in the most unlikely of places: a reservoir in the middle of a desert, which has a stark white bathtub ring showing how much water the lake has lost over the years.

Sevilleja grew up racing outriggers on the majestic blue surf of Hawaii. He moved to Las Vegas in the 1990s in search of carpentry work and a less expensive life. Lake Mead is not the dream world back home, but for Sevilleja, it is enough.

“This is my ocean,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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