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Would You Rather Have a Short Commute or Lower Living Expenses? — Part 1

On O‘ahu, many families must consider housing costs versus commute times when deciding where to live. We spoke to one Makakilo family who is making a longer commute work for their family of six.


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Bogner Family

kari Bogner with husband Paul, daughters rachael and aiden, and son elijah.
Photos: Courtesy of Kari Bogner

 

Every morning, Kari Bogner sets her alarm for 3:30 a.m. and makes the commute to her downtown Honolulu office from her family’s home in Makakilo. She’s been leaving the house in the pre-dawn darkness since 2012 in a punishing schedule designed to avoid rush hour traffic to and from work.

 

The commute at that time of the morning is a manageable 35 minutes, she claims, but the drive takes about an hour and a quarter at peak traffic hours. “When university is in session, I have to leave at 4:45 to avoid traffic.” 

 

Her organization offers the possibility of a flexible work schedule. “I start before 5:30 a.m. and I work until 2:30 in the afternoon,” she explained. It’s this flexibility that makes her commute closer to the nationwide average of just 26 minutes, which has increased by only about 5 minutes since the 1980s, according to recent Census Bureau data.

 

Kari is the Director of Mission Delivery at Make-A-Wish Hawai‘i, a job title that makes almost every heart soften upon hearing it. Her work is important, both to her and to the many local families whose lives she impacts daily through her work.

 

The charity serves about 100 local families across the state each year, granting wishes to local children with critical medical conditions. “It has to be more than just a job to make it work,” Kari said of her commitment to her daily schedule, and to a charitable mission she absolutely loves.

 

Kari came by this role in the hardest way possible. First, she was a “wish mom” herself—the mother of a daughter struggling with a life-threatening medical condition. That’s how she and her husband Paul first came in contact with the nonprofit organization to which she has been commuting for almost seven years.

 

The Bogners would have liked to move into town, but it just hasn’t been financially feasible to make that change, due in part to family size and unforeseen circumstances.

 

Their daughter Aiden was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2011 when she was just three years old, the same year their 6-year-old son Elijah was diagnosed with both Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease. Kari and Paul Bogner have had to endure the financial burdens of having not one, but two gravely ill children.

 

Bogner children

oldest and youngest daughters Paige and Aiden Bogner.

 

Today, Aiden is 11 years old, cancer-free, and thriving. She just finished the fifth grade and is considered cured, after five years with a clean bill of health. But back in 2011, the sudden medical expenses compounded the many challenges of parents struggling to raise four kids on O‘ahu, with its high cost of living.

 

“Sometimes I fantasize about the five-minute commute some of my peers have. But it’s not a reality for the size of our family,” admits Kari, who also shared that medical bills continue to be a factor in their decision to stay in Makakilo.

 

Their son Elijah’s insulin costs a couple of hundred dollars a month, in addition to the expense of other therapies. The Bogners had to spring for a continuous glucose monitor. “We have the co-pays for all of that. We also had to change our diet to accommodate his gluten intolerance.”

 

Paul and Kari bought their home in 2009 in Makakilo, where they had previously owned a home since 1998.  “We simply couldn’t afford to buy a place in town at that time,” said Kari, even though both she and her husband are highly educated professionals.  

 

“We couldn’t qualify for a large enough mortgage loan. There were no choices. It was either rent in town or buy on the west side,” she said, before pointing out that affordable rental or purchase options for a family of six are very limited. A home with a yard in town was decidedly beyond their reach, even ten years ago, before all their additional medical bills arose.

 

When they purchased in 2009, Kari worked in the operating room at Pali Momi as a surgical technologist, but when her days began to be filled with medical jargon at home, at work, and on their increasingly frequent hospital visits for Aiden’s endless treatments, Kari decided a new job was in order. ”My whole world was medicine, that was one of the reasons I had to make a change.”

 

“This is the only work I would ever commute for like this,” said Kari, referring to the mission of the Make-A-Wish organization. “Work has to support your family, but it also has to be something you’re passionate about to commit to this commute.”

 

There’s a growing number of “super commuters” across the country, according to Apartment List. Since 2005, the number of workers who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work has increased by 31.7 percent. Somewhat paradoxically, the number of Americans who work from home has increased by 76 percent in the same period.

 

Technology, shifting preferences, and a lack of affordable housing in big city centers are cited as the causes of these increases. Honolulu County comprises 3% of the nation's total number of super commuters. Honolulu's super commuters have increased by a whopping 81.5% since 2009, according to Apartment List data.

 

In the early mornings, Kari's husband Paul attends to the morning duties of getting four kids ready for school, while she takes the after-school shift. “It’s a long day. I get home after 3:00, and I want a nap, but I need to be a productive parent,” said Kari.

 

Bogner family

Paige and Kari Bogner celebrating Paige’s 21st birthday with mimosas AT KO‘OLINA.

 

Paul similarly works an alternate schedule. He leaves for his job at the airport at around noon and comes home at about 11:00 at night. “My husband and I have about one day a week to spend together. Right now, it’s Saturday,” Kari said.

 

Today, they are grateful they chose the longer commute and lower housing costs. Looking back on the sudden medical expenses they faced, Kari said, “Honestly, I don’t know how we managed to stay in our house. If our living expenses had been any higher we wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay in our house."

 

She cited an example: during the first week of Aiden’s diagnosis, the Bogners' medical bills totaled $55,000. “Our co-pay portion was about $4,000 to $4,500. Of course, that didn’t include any of the extra stuff, like labs. She had a 3-year course of treatment, and a portion of that wasn’t covered,” she shared.

 

Odd, unexpected expenses came up. “We needed a new dishwasher that could sterilize dishes because Aiden’s immune system was so compromised,” said Kari, who also had to renovate their kitchen to provide a cleaner, safer environment for the kids.

 

On top of everything else, the Bogners' bills at the gas station had doubled due to their frequent hospital visits, and the wear and tear on their vehicles resulted in more frequent car repairs.

 

Of their home in Makakilo, the choice has been overall a positive one. These days, they are grateful for the quality of life it provides. Would they make the choice again, despite the long commute? “That’s a really tough question. In the same circumstances, I’d like to think I would,” said Kari, who spoke to the positive changes in recent years.

 

“The city has grown up around us. Now we have every convenience nearby. We like that it’s not overly congested, there’s less noise, less pollution, and we are just four miles from Ko‘olina,” said Kari. “We liked what it offered our family in terms of less of a city feel. Now it’s a bit more crowded and has more local traffic, but that’s the price we’ve had to pay for gaining conveniences.”

 

“If you’re stuck in traffic all day, it’s bound to take a toll on your life,” she said. “There are many times when I'm forced to commute at conventional times, and it’s tough. It’s important to note that when we first moved to Makakilo, my commute was half of what it is now. If you grow into the commute, it might be easier.”

 

Kari continues to share her experience with families facing unimaginable hardship. She brings a unique mindset to her role at Make-A-Wish and can’t imagine doing anything else for work, despite the early hours and longer drive.

 

“I love the Waianae Coast and Ko‘olina. I would rather have a bigger yard, clear skies without the high-rises looming. I like to see the mountains behind me and be able to breathe,” said Kari. “Most days, it’s worth the sacrifice.”

 

 

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