Editor's Page: Paying the Paradise Tax

The downside to life in Hawaii is mainly economic. How much are we willing to pay?

Photo: Linny Morris

Everybody loves Hawaii!

There’s new proof. A Mainland polling firm, Public Policy Polling, spent four months late last year asking American voters if they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of each of the 50 states. Hawaii topped the likability list, with 54 percent of respondents viewing us favorably, only 10 percent unfavorably.

We like it, too. That’s why we live here, and why most of our subscribers do, as well. However, unlike the residents of 49 other states, who can only dream of living in Hawaii, we actually know what it’s like to live here. While there’s much to be grateful for, we know that Hawaii is not always a bed of roses, or even a lei of plumeria. Mainly, this is because we have what a friend of mine calls America’s “most expensive ordinary life.”

In our cover story, “Is Hawaii Worth It?,” associate editor Tiffany Hill details some of those costs, from milk to electricity to housing. She also interviewed two Honolulu families and two individuals for a more intimate view of how kamaaina wrestle with the high price of paradise. Two had moved to the Mainland, where they definitely felt the advantages of leaving, yet ultimately chose to come back to the Islands. Of the other two, one family is planning its exit, another person left for San Francisco and has no plans to return.

Our 50-50 split is slightly more positive than reality. According to MetroTrends, an online publication from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Urban Institute, Honolulu lost more residents between 2004 and 2010 through out-migration to other U.S. cities than it gained from in-migration. (Top three places to which Honoluluans fled: Los Angeles, San Diego and—shocking, I know—Las Vegas.) We also earned a D grade from MetroTrends for economic security, mainly for housing unaffordability.

The “most expensive” part of my friend’s description is obvious, the “ordinary life” part may be harder to articulate, given Hawaii’s extraordinary qualities. But set aside the weather and the scenery. Think about Honolulu as just a city; a place to work, to shop, to do business, and take in a little culture or recreation on the side.

It’s a small town.

Honolulu, if you’re being strict about its incorporated boundaries, has a population of 337,256, making it the 53rd largest city in America. Add the suburbs that make up the City & County of Honolulu and you’ve got about 900,000 people on Oahu.

You know what other cities are that size? Wichita, Kan., (382,368 in the city proper, or more than 600,000 including Wichita’s contiguous development). St. Louis, Mo., (319,294 in the city itself, but about 1 million in larger St. Louis county).

There are limits to the incomes and professional opportunities one can find in a city the size of a Wichita or St. Louis or Honolulu. In most cities, the cost of living bends accordingly. Care to guess the median price of a single-family home in Wichita?

$115,200. In St. Louis? $126,800.

In Honolulu? Well, Wichita’s home price is just our down payment. As of February 2012, Honolulu’s median price for a home was $625,000.

That’s how you get America’s most expensive ordinary life.

But at least we’re not California. Remember that poll I mentioned at first? It found that California is now America’s least favorite state, with just 27 percent viewing it favorably. In fact, it’s one of only five states Americans actively dislike, behind Illinois, New Jersey, Mississippi and Utah.

We may be broke, but at least we’re loved.