I was recently at a friend’s wedding on Maui. It was a beautiful ceremony in a magnificent location. The wedding was a week-long affair and the other guests were thrilled to enjoy the beach and sip drinks along the cascade of infinity pools at the resort. But I’m weird. I can’t sit still that long so I started to explore how the place works – not just the one resort, but the whole Maui tourist economy. First, I checked out real estate prices in the area. The cost of even the most modest homes and apartments are off the charts expensive. Property is pegged to what wealthy outsiders from the mainland and abroad are willing and able to pay rather than what the local population can afford. That got me thinking about where the hotel staff lived. So I asked the people I encountered how they manage under the circumstances. There were a few standard answers.
First, there was upper management who were highly trained and well educated professionals who earned tolerable salaries and, with a spouse’s professional income and a little help from family, were able to own a modest property within a reasonable commute from work. Next, were the clerks, waiters, bartenders, and such. They were generally young and spending a bit of post-college pre-marriage time in a gorgeous place doing work that was either pleasant or at least bearable given the location. The largest proportion of these folks lived in nearby properties owned by older relatives. If dad or grandma is providing free or heavily subsidized accommodations it really doesn’t matter what the place costs on the open market. A good percentage of these homes are seasonal second or third homes and would sit empty or rented to strangers anyway. Having young family members occupy these vacation and retirement properties while they work at the hotels makes perfect sense. The third most common housing arrangement involved a few people pooling their resources and sharing a single apartment to cover the rent. There was a general lack of space and privacy in these situations, but everyone understood it was temporary for a season or two. The Hawaiian adventure was worth any inconvenience.
Within a fifteen minute drive of the beachfront resorts I discovered a variety of housing types ranging from multi-million dollar single family homes to three hundred square foot studio apartments. None of these were what anyone with a normal budget or a family to support would ever call “affordable”. But one way or another the young front-end staff at the hotels find ways to make things work.
As I explored I was fascinated by the market segmentation of each product type. The subdivisions were sealed off from each other. It would be inconceivable for the people in a $5,000,000 home on a half acre lot to exist in the same pod as a complex of $900,000 two bedroom condos. The condos would be far too trashy for them. And the folks who owned $900,000 condos would be scandalized if someone tried to build $1,800 a month studio rental apartments inside their pod. That would attract “the wrong element”. The pods could all exist next to each other across the shrubbery and landscaped berms so long as they each had their own home owners associations and the roads in and out were completely segregated – preferably with a gate. Endless rules and restrictions, both private and municipal, control each pod to ensure property values are maintained at the appropriate level. This is the default suburban arrangement all over North America – give or take a few zeros and a comma.
It was a little trickier to discover where the maids and gardeners lived. The majority were older than the kids waiting tables and working the front desk and they were overwhelmingly immigrants from the Philippines. Unlike bartenders they were not generally inclined to chat with hotel guests in a casual manner. My inquiries about affordable workforce housing were met with confusion or slight suspicion. But I was eventually able to identify a few neighborhoods and the general living arrangements.
There’s simply no economic or political force on Maui that can provide sufficient affordable housing for the number of low wage workers required to run the tourist economy. Land is too expensive. Government and philanthropic funds are entirely inadequate. And political will to construct subsidized housing absolutely anywhere is a non starter at every level of the approval and community engagement process. The minimum wage in Hawaii is $7.25 per hour. The best paid housekeepers on Maui earn no more than $14.50 per hour. The median home price on Maui is $527,500 although that half million dollar number is actually misleading due to the geography of the island. Jobs are concentrated in a handful of locations where housing is significantly more expensive. Lower cost housing is in remote areas that are outside a reasonable commuting distance. HOA restrictions and a host of municipal regulations prevent too many people from sharing a rented apartment in the more expensive regions. Landlords in prime locations can pick and choose who to rent to and they tend toward Canadian tourists rather than immigrant cleaning ladies. So the sweet spot for these workers involves ordinary tract homes in specific older subdivisions that lack HOAs, are far enough from wealthy neighborhoods to escape regulatory push back, yet are close enough for a tolerable commute.
Here’s an example I pulled from a real estate site. This 1962 three bedroom one bath tract home is among the least expensive properties on the island. It’s listed for $449,000. It doesn’t get any more affordable than this. It’s been on the market for a year and the price was recently cut by $100,000. If someone were to buy this place with a standard 20% down payment of $90,000 the monthly mortgage would be $1,642. At either $7.25 or $14.50 per hour for low wage workers the numbers don’t add up unless many people occupy the space to get the per person rent or mortgage down to a manageable level. So each bedroom gets multiple sets of bunk beds. The living room is a bedroom. The dining room is a bedroom. The garage is a bedroom. People work day, night, and swing shifts so the same beds and parking spots are used at different times by different people. They call these homes “hot beds” since the mattresses are always occupied and never have a chance to cool. (This is exactly how my Sicilian grandparents grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and war years. This kind of arrangement isn’t really new or different.)
This particular subdivision is protected from gentrification and redevelopment since it’s sandwiched between the airport runway and the oil tank farm of the industrial seaport. Most of these homes are owned and occupied by extended multigenerational families. Cousins arrive, work and save, send money back to their home country, or prioritize their children’s advancement. They scrub things clean and give the walls fresh paint. They make due with the resources they have. The arrangement might not be ideal, but it gets the job done in the absence of any other option. Neighbors tend to live and let live since they’re all in the same position. Local authorities are disinclined to engage in too much code enforcement since the county would simply create a homeless problem they know they can’t resolve. Employers at the resorts wouldn’t like it too much either if members of their cleaning and gardening staff suddenly stopped showing up for work. So there you have it. Affordable housing – Maui style.