An 'island paradise' that's clean and relaxed--but facing economic problems


October 28, 1990|By Susan Sullam

HONOLULU, HAWAII — Honolulu, Hawaii--I have an Aunt Bert who says that when you "go visiting," you can always tell a lot about your hosts by how clean they keep their house. As a transplanted Baltimorean temporarily living in Hawaii for 10 months, I can honestly say this state would knock my 82-year-old aunt's socks off.

"Clean" should be the Hawaiian state motto. It is a state that has virtually never seen graffiti and has public restrooms that are spotless and contain -- wait till you hear this, Aunt Bert -- soap, toilet paper and paper towels.

On our second week here, my husband and I registered our two children at the local public elementary school. We drove up to the school and immediately saw a mural, encompassing the entire outside wall of the school, of a waterfall cascading from a mountain peak to the ocean.

The mural didn't bode well. At our local elementary school in Baltimore, graffiti had been such a problem that city officials had advised us to paint a mural as a last-ditch effort to stop graffiti "artistry."

I turned to my husband and smugly said, "Boy, we though Baltimore had a lot of graffiti! Look at the size of that mural -- they

must have a really big graffiti problem here." Well, no. They just like art.

Hawaii is also a state of true civility. In the two months that we've been here, I have yet to hear a car horn honk or someone yell an obscenity (and that's saying a lot considering we live on a road that easily can be compared to Northern Parkway). Drivers here also don't drive the wrong direction in parking lots or run yellow lights -- let alone red lights or stop signs.

That's not to say Hawaii doesn't have horrendous traffic. On th day after Labor Day, when schools opened, Hawaii gritted itself for an additional 77,000 cars on the road. The local newspaper runs a regular Drive Time column complete with relaxation exercises for commuters who must fight the daily gridlock that has become commonplace and seems to last from before sunrise to after sunset.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, Hawaii -- the island paradise filled with what residents lovingly refer to as "aloha spirit" -- is in transition.

Those who visit Hawaii on a vacation or for a short stay rarel see the undercurrents that are transforming it from an island paradise to a state in which an increasing number of residents are struggling to make ends meet and, often, not succeeding.

Since the early 1970s, residents have found their standard o living steadily sliding downhill. There's the benign weather, the sand, the surf and the easygoing spirit, but there's also the median price for an existing single-family home on Oahu of $267,600, triple the national average of $93,100.

Purchasing a home is so difficult here that in the 1980 Census, Hawaii was ranked 49th in the nation for percentage of the population who are homeowners.

When reeling off this figure, the state's statistician -- with a almost perverse pride -- informs you that all state estimates show homeownership has remained "static," indicating Hawaii probably is still one of the states with the fewest homeowners and may even rank 50th in the 1990 Census.

The situation has gotten so bleak for many first-time buyers tha a recent newspaper article had a local developer suggesting that parents turn their Honolulu homes over to their adult children and move to Las Vegas, where he was developing affordable housing.

Personal incomes have done little to keep up with soaring prices. While per capita income is 5 percent higher than the national average, the cost of living has climbed to more than 30 percent above the national average.

What that means for the average consumer can easily be translated into $1.58 for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline, $3.95 for a gallon a milk and $1,500 a month in rent for a modest three-bedroom house. Even the Goodwill here isn't cheap. A set of mismatched and chipped dishes cost $35.68, not such a bargain.

High prices for packaged goods here can be attributed to shipping costs -- a 15-ounce box of Cheerios costs $5.23 in Honolulu, about double the Baltimore price. With housing, a limited supply of land clashes with demand fueled by Japanese buyers.

Hawaii does have a thriving economy, but it's an economy based on service (tourism) and Japanese investment.

In 1989, tourism was by far Hawaii's biggest industry, generating $10.9 billion in revenue. Nearly half -- $4.5 billion -- came from Japanese tourists.

Hawaii also depends on Japanese investment. In the last 3 years, a total of $8.7 billion in foreign capital has been invested in Hawaii, with a whopping $7.1 billion of that coming from the Japanese.

Along Waikiki Beach, Japanese own all the major hotels, including the venerated Royal Hawaiian.

Hawaii's dependence on Japanese tourism and investment has made for a tense hate-love relationship that can be felt as you travel around the islands.

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