KAPOLEI, Hawaii — Kona Purdy never wanted to live anywhere but Hawaii. As a native Hawaiian, he wanted his children to grow up like him: rooted in his culture and nurtured by the mountains and the ocean.
But raising a family in Hawaii meant cramming nine people into a four-bedroom house, rented with extended family, in Waipahu, a suburb of Honolulu. He felt cramped, but the Purdys accepted that this was the price of survival in his homeland.
“We got into one room,” Purdy said of the living arrangements for her family of four.
His share of the monthly rent was $2,300. When the rent increased, the Purdys realized they could no longer afford to live in Hawaii.
“I was so busy working, trying to make ends meet,” he said. “We never take our children to the beach. We didn’t go hiking.
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It is increasingly common for Hawaiians to have to leave the Aloha State, where the median price of a single-family home has exceeded $900,000 during the pandemic. On Oahu, the most populous island and where Honolulu is located, the average price exceeds a million dollars.
Many residents work low-wage service jobs, and the financial strain is especially significant for the indigenous people of Hawaii. A state analysis published last year showed that a single person working 40 hours a week would need to earn $18 an hour to pay for housing and other necessities in Hawaii, but the state minimum wage is currently $12 an hour.
Many, like the Purdys, headed to Las Vegas.
According to the 2021 population estimates from the US Census Bureau, the largest growth in Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations occurred in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas and Los Angeles County. Sacramento, Calif. The largest decline in Native Hawaiian residents was in Honolulu.
Hawaii residents spend an average of 42.06% of their income on rent, which is the highest of any state, according to a Forbes Home analysis. California comes in second, but with a much lower share of rental income: 28.47%.
Estimates from the American Community Survey showed that in 2011 there were about 296,400 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and about 221,600 in the mainland US. Just a decade later, those numbers have changed. As of 2021, there were about 309,800 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and about 370,000 in other states.
“There is no Hawaii without Hawaiians,” said Honolulu City Council Speaker Tommy Waters, who is a native Hawaiian. All five of his siblings have moved to the continental US. “It’s incredibly sad to me that Hawaiians can’t afford to live in Hawaii.”
Las Vegas was desirable to the Purdys because it is a popular vacation destination for Hawaiian residents, which meant the family would likely visit frequently. Also, the cost of living is significantly lower.
So, in 2017, they uprooted their family and moved to Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb in Clark County, where they could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month.
Off the coast of Hawaii, they felt like “fish out of water,” Purdy said.
“So it’s a real ‘eha,’” Purdy said, using the Hawaiian word for painful, “because you get disconnected from the earth, which we are so connected to being born and raised here.”
But even though they were almost 3,000 miles from home, the Hawaiian culture surrounded them. Thanks to many other transplants, the Las Vegas area is filled with restaurants that cater to the Hawaiian taste and cultural events that express Hawaiian pride.
A few months after they moved, 20 other relatives followed, including Purdy’s mother, uncle and sister, Lindsay Villarimo.
“Over time, it became exhausting trying to make ends meet,” Villarimo said. “It is heartbreaking that that is the choice we make. Most of us, I think, just left home because of the price.” When Villarimo and her family decided to move to Nevada, her husband Henry hadn’t even left Hawaii.
The affordability of Las Vegas was “liberating,” he said. With cheaper rent and food, and no state income taxes, you could stretch your paycheck even further.
“We were living in the dollar store,” he said. In Hawaii, that kind of store doesn’t exist.
In 2019, Doreen Hall Vann decided to move to Las Vegas to be closer to her daughter, who had moved to Seattle in search of more job opportunities.
But in her new home, she found she had more time and less stress.
“I was so busy at home trying to make a living,” she said. “When I moved to Las Vegas, it really put my life on hold and I was able to see things a lot more clearly.”
In Las Vegas, Purdy’s children began learning hula, and the family enjoyed “hoolaulea,” cultural festivals that were bigger than the celebrations in Hawaii.
But in August 2021, exactly four years after leaving Hawaii, the Purdys returned home.
Purdy said his wife wanted to take care of his mother, who began to show signs of dementia. His daughter was also accepted into Kamehameha Schools, a highly selective and relatively affordable private school system that gives admission preference to students of Hawaiian descent.
The family moved to Kapolei, a Honolulu suburb not far from where they once lived, to share a five-bedroom house with their extended family. Now that the Purdys have three children, they rent out two of the bedrooms.
Purdy is trying to find time to take her kids to hula classes. Since she moved in, the family has only been to the beach once.
“It’s routine, it’s difficult, it’s very expensive,” he said. “But I also feel like we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be right now.”