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Honolulu Civil Beat: Housing Costs Put a Crimp On Keeping Teachers In Hawaiʻi

In an ongoing series highlighting the housing crisis and teacher shortages in Hawaiʻi, Honolulu Civil Beat featured Landed as an alternative homebuying resource teachers can utilize. 

The following article is by journalist Suevon Lee, with photography by Ku’u Kauanoe, Suevon Lee, and Cory Lum of Honolulu Civil Beat.

O’Brien and Luster live in these adjoining studios that are part of DOE teacher housing in Waimea, which sits right by Waimea Elementary School.

“For Hawaii public school teachers Annie O’Brien and Heather Luster, an ordinary, drab-looking structure parked behind an elementary school has been home for the past year. What it lacks in aesthetic appeal, it more than makes up for in affordability. The women, who are neighbors, pay $500 a month for their studios, with utilities ranging from $50 to $80. Their rent is deducted directly from their Department of Education paychecks.

I realize that’s a very great deal, said O’Brien, 60, an Australian who moved to the Big Island a year ago from the mainland to teach special education.

But once O’Brien vacates her apartment after the school year is up, she’s uncertain whether Hawaii’s cost of living makes it worthwhile to stick around in her job.

The high cost of housing in Hawaii is one of the major factors preventing many educators from staying on the islands. ‘Leaving Hawaii’ for the mainland surpassed retirement as the top reason for voluntary teacher separations from the DOE starting around 2015... Teachers who can’t afford to stay in the regions where they work create a gnawing issue around the U.S., such as in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teachers are decamping to more affordable areas of California or leaving the state altogether.

In Hawaii, a licensed first-year teacher has a starting salary of just under $50,000. Dense urban areas like Honolulu might see teachers crowding into one space as roommates to save on rent.

Rural areas of the state don’t necessarily present more affordable options: in Waimea, an average one-bedroom unit can easily climb to $1,500 or more a month, which would surpass the recommended 30% cap on rent as a portion of one’s monthly paycheck for a starting teacher.

And while the DOE offers teacher housing in some areas of the state, it’s a limited supply and just for transitional purposes. There are 59 units statewide, located in the most rural parts of neighbor islands. There is no teacher housing on Oahu, where the majority of teachers are based.

“I feel I’m living in temporary accommodations,” O’Brien said. “I would rather have a more permanent place to live, I suppose.”

Some wider-ranging proposals, such as providing DOE teachers with housing vouchers to help offset rent or the cost of a mortgage, were proposed by Hawaii lawmakers this year but got little traction.

Last month, the DOE announced a new partnership with a Northern California start-up company to provide up to $120,000 in down payment assistance to teachers who want to buy a home here in exchange for a 25% share of the home’s appreciation or loss when the home is sold or refinanced after 30 years.

Six teachers living in one house tells you the story of what’s happening in Hawaii, state school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at an April 30 press conference in support of the new partnership. ‘We need to make homeownership a reality and we need to keep our best and our brightest teachers here.

Though Luster and O’Brien teach special education at Waikoloa Elementary and Middle — about a 25-minute drive to the southwest of Waimea — they choose to live in quieter Waimea because it offers teacher housing, unlike the residential community nearest their school.

Annie O’Brien and Heather Luster's 500-square-foot studio apartment. Photos courtesy of Ku’u Kauanoe, Suevon Lee, and Cory Lum from Honolulu Civil Beat.While some affordable housing complexes have been built to accommodate a growing population of families who work in the tourism industry and send their kids to the public schools, the Village, as Waikoloa’s residential community is known, is largely inaccessible to those without a two-income household.

The Waimea DOE teacher housing complex consists of four studios, four one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units. The nondescript structure is situated right behind Waimea Elementary School, where a lone yellow school bus sat parked near the driveway one Sunday afternoon in February.

Both Luster and O’Brien have spruced up their adjoining 500-square-foot studio apartments with personal touches to give them a more cozy feel.

For O’Brien, that’s meant painting her walls a pale shade of yellow from its original beige, draping her windows with gauzy white curtains ordered off Amazon and placing a framed photo of her adult children in the sitting area.

Luster, 23, placed a row of potted plants on her windowsill and filled a large bookcase with science fiction novels to read in her spare time. Their windows offer panoramic views of the natural beauty of the rural landscape. But the bare bones way of living sometimes grates on O’Brien.

I can do it for a year, but I’m older so it’s different for me, she said. I think I should have a washer and dryer, I think I deserve one. I’m 60 years old! I think I should have a real bed. Those things are more important to me I suppose because of my age.

Come next school year, these apartments will likely be occupied by new teachers with new belongings and new stories of arrival in Hawaii.

That’s because DOE teacher housing, whose purpose is to provide temporary accommodations to teachers new to the area, only guarantees occupancy for one year and allows a maximum stay of three years.

Principal Kris Kosa-Correira has been at Waikoloa Elementary and Middle since 2000. “They just can’t afford it. That’s the bottom line,” she said of why her teachers leave.

‘I might stay in Hawaii if I could find something affordable but spending such a large part of your salary on accommodations is sort of a moot point,’ said O’Brien, sitting at her round kitchen table that doubles as a desk. The lack of affordable housing for teachers is also a big concern for their principals, who want a stable staff. ‘They just can’t afford it. That’s the bottom line, said Waikoloa Elementary and Middle Principal Kris Kosa-Correia, a graduate of Oahu’s Kailua High School.

I wish they (the DOE) could afford to buy apartment buildings and have a big apartment unit with one, two and three-bedroom units close to every school...It’s always hard to put a lot of money and energy and professional development and all this stuff into a teacher and have them only stay one or two years. But I do it. I do it every year,’ she said. ‘Because we don’t want them to not have the skills and everything else that we share.’

[...] DOE’s partnership with Landed, the Bay Area start-up that is offering down payment assistance to teachers in certain urban hubs around the country, is a new option for some teachers who want to buy a home and for whom the model makes financial sense.

Landed representatives talk about the start-up company’s down payment home assistance program for DOE teachers at the Farrington High School library during a recent informational session.

At a recent informational session at Farrington High School, several dozen DOE employees crowded inside the library to hear Ian Magruder, Landed’s Director of Partnerships, describe the program and field their questions.

This isn’t going to be a magic potion that’s going to solve all your problems, but we hope it will help you stay in the profession, said Keith Amemiya, senior vice president of Island Holdings Inc., which helped bring Landed in through the Hawaii Executive Conference.

Enthusiasm level among teacher attendees was high.


This story was originally published in Honolulu Civil Beat on May 29, 2019. The author is Suevon Lee.

More press coverage of Landed can be found at landed.com/news.

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About the Author

Jennifer Nash Darukhanawalla

Raised in the Bay Area, Jennifer is a senior attending San Jose State University planning to double major with a B.A. in Graphic Design and a B.S. in Advertising. As a MarComm Intern, Jennifer works with the Engagement Lead on photography, videography, editing, writing, and communications.

Looking for Landed's down payment program? Due to a temporary unavailability of DPP investment funds, all Landed metro areas are being put on a DPP waitlist effective September 8, 2022. You can read all the details (including FAQs) here if you would like to know more.