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Bob Cesca: “Hawaii is a State,” Part Two: Renting in Hawaii With Dogs

MEMBERS ONLY: The following is Part Two in a multi-part series about real life in Hawaii. This week, Bob recounts how he and his wife struggled to find affordable housing in Honolulu with two large dogs.
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The following is Part Two in a multi-part series about real life in Hawaii. Part One, "Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying," can be found here.

In 2010, I lived in a 3,200 square-foot McMansion in Reading, Pennsylvania, located at the farthest outskirts of the Philadelphia metroplex. A year later, I was living with the love of my life in paradise: Honolulu, Hawaii. The studio apartment Joy and I rented was 400 square-feet, smaller than my former master bedroom. And I was perfectly happy. A not insignificant benefit of meeting Joy and moving to Hawaii was that it offered a really practical excuse to unload all of the material crap I had accumulated throughout my adult life and my doomed marriage. I had reached a tipping point where being house-poor in the midst of the Great Recession was perhaps the most stress-inducing aspect of my life -- too much stuff, too much house, not enough money to pay the mortgage.

Moving to Hawaii forced me to jettison everything that I didn't absolutely need -- everything that I didn't cherish. There was simply no way to move all of my possessions 5,000 miles away, and I sure as hell didn't have the money to store it all until I could afford to move it. And why move it anyway? The mission was to simplify and prioritize; to systematically unwind the crushing effects of the recession and to arrange my life so that I'm never, ever trapped and vulnerable to the same economic circumstances again. In order to do that I need to get out from under a mountain of debt, an underwater mortgage and a house-load of stuff -- a fairly typical Great Recession case study. So, I packed up what I really, really wanted to keep, and just left the rest behind. My ex-wife, with whom I owned the house, was at liberty sell it and keep the money if she chose to, or she could give it to Goodwill. I was done. Out. I didn't care. I grabbed what was really important and left everything else behind.

The house went on the market in January of 2011, and during a short-sale negotiation, the bank, which had taken $300 million in TARP bailout money, by the way, foreclosed on the house, then auctioned it off and bought it back for $2,500, reselling it in 2012 for the same price as the short-sale offer.

Incidentally, by the time the house was sold 16 months after I moved to Hawaii, Joy and I had lived in four different apartments. Yes, four.

It turns out, three of the most daunting challenges for living in Hawaii are, 1) the cost of living, 2) living on a limited budget and 3) owning large or medium-sized dogs. Combine those challenges and it's a cocktail of heartbreak and Craigslist nightmares. Joy's dog, "Lolo," is a tall, spindly, shy German Shepherd and my dog, "Samwise" (shut up), is an energetic, gregarious Australian Shepherd. Together, that's a lot of dog, but both of "the boys" are older dogs, house-trained and relatively quiet. But because Joy worked at the University of Hawaii as an archivist in the special collections department, it was important to live as close to the campus as possible. Honolulu is a beautiful city, and its amenities are exactly like any other city. There are plenty of available apartments, condos and semis, but very few houses with yards for dogs priced within the budgets of a librarian and a freelance media producer.

If we owned chihuahuas, we never would've had a problem. Most apartments allowed very small dogs, even though small dogs are more difficult to house-train and they yap -- a lot. I'll never quite understand the logic there, but okay. The only apartments that allow larger dogs in Honolulu are seemingly former meth-labs where the landlords calculated that large dogs are probably better options than Jesse Pinkman.

At this point, let's pause for an important sidebar about bringing your pets to Hawaii.

If you're planning a vacation, you won't be able to bring your dog or cat along. If you plan to move here, bringing your dog or cat with you is, shall we say, close to impossible. I learned soon after deciding to move here with Sam that Hawaii is a rabies-free state. Not only are there no animals, wild or domestic, with rabies here, but the government intends to keep it that way by making sure all incoming animals have been vaccinated and thoroughly tested by, weirdly, a laboratory at the University of Kansas.

In October 2010, when I decided to move here with Sam, I immediately had to take my dog to the vet to be inoculated for rabies. Sam also had to be tested for something called the OIE-Flourescent Antibody Serum Neutralization Test (OIE-FAVN), which checks to see if the vaccination is working. He also needed to be microchipped (the microchip contains the blood test data). After that, Sam had to remain in Pennsylvania for four months with my ex-wife, then given a certification from the vet at the end of the 120 days. This exhausting, too-complicated process was the only possible way to fly with Sam to Hawaii and take him to his new Honolulu home directly from the airport.

Should you decide to not go through the home quarantine process, your animal will be summarily confiscated at the airport and transported to a Department of Agriculture quarantine facility near Pearl Harbor -- a hellscape that looks like a ramshackled internment camp for very, very sad animals. Quarantine time: four months. More than anything else during the move, I kept insanely meticulous records for the quarantine process because the last thing I wanted after leaving my dog with my estranged ex-wife for four months was to forget a vital document along the way, forcing him to spend another four months in doggie hell. In April, 2011, I flew back to Pennsylvania to retrieve Sam and begin the process of flying him 5,000 back to Hawaii. Fortunately, he loved his new travel crate and seemed happy enough, even in the noisy airport. I also split up the trip over two days, flying first to Los Angeles where he could stretch his legs, then to Hawaii the following day.

So, there we were, two tall humans and two large dogs in a 400-square-foot apartment in the Makiki neighborhood of Honolulu, about three miles uphill and inland from Waikiki beach.

It goes without saying the apartment was far too small for us. And, worse, when we moved into it, for some reason Joy and I both failed to notice that there were only two windows -- one in the bathroom, and one next to the front door. The rest of the place was entirely concealed from outside light and, more importantly, the trade winds that keep most of Hawaii from disintegrating in the tropical sun. Consequently, the only way to cool the apartment was to run a window-unit air conditioner and a ceiling fan. The result? A really cool, climate-controlled studio, yes, but also an accompanying electric bill that was more than what I paid with central air in a 3,200 square-foot house in Pennsylvania. Our electric bills were routinely in the $250-$300 range -- so astronomical that we thought we were being charged for the building's laundry room or someone else's electricity in addition to our own usage. What I learned within the first couple of months was that electricity is ridiculously expensive, and the biggest drain on electricity was air conditioning.

The Hawaii Electric Company charges around two-to-three times more than mainland utilities. Here on the Big Island where we live now, residential electricity is a whopping 42-cents per kilowatt hour. For the sake of comparison, the average for California is around 15-cents. The complicated and infinitely frustrating reasons for the rates are a subject for a separate installment of this series, covering alternative energy and the utilities racket. Needless to say, if you're struggling financially, as we were back in 2011, electricity is prohibitively expensive. As I wrote last time: Hawaii requires you to prioritize your expenditures.

On top of the electricity rates and other culture-shock moments, having never been to Hawaii before, I also learned very quickly that no matter how clean you are, there are cockroaches here. Lots of them. Everywhere. There are smaller, traditional-looking brown ones. There are larger black ones that randomly take flight. And there are super-massive cockroaches evidently developed for Jurassic Park by Mr. Hammond and his team of geneticists (not necessarily why Jurassic Park was filmed here). There are also lots of adorable geckos, exactly like the chatty British one from the Geico commercials, but without the accent. I spent one of my first nights in Hawaii chasing something called a "cane spider" around our apartment. Talk about Jurassic. I'm fairly certain this was the same spider that ended up in Peter Brady's bed because of that cursed tiki idol.

bb spider

Between the cramped living space, a weird, stinky hoarder lady as a next-door-neighbor and almost no outside fresh air, we decided after six months to move out. And thus commenced one of the most tragic episodes of House Hunters ever.

After responding to a few ads on Craigslist, we quickly learned that we'd have to assemble a carefully crafted pitch for our dogs. We compiled a packet containing letters of recommendation from our vet and the staff at the "doggie daycare" facility where we'd take our dogs to socialize and to stretch their legs. We also had our landlord pen a letter on our behalf testifying that our dogs were clean and quiet. Of course, none of it really mattered. The apartments we really liked didn't allow large dogs, and the places that allowed dogs were held together with duct tape and black mold. One place in particular that would've allowed our dogs was about 30 miles from the city in the town of Waimanalo -- close to a really fantastic beach, but it would've been a brutal commute for Joy. The house itself was on a horse farm, which might've been interesting. But there was a shipping container in the front yard with, yes, a weird hermit living inside of it. When we checked out the tiny back yard, which was more like a glorified chicken coop, our legs were instantly covered with fleas. And that was the most promising of the non-apartment options in our price range.

Now, if we had an upper-middle-class income, we could've found a really nice place that allowed dogs. But we were in the unenviable position of threading a needle between our big dogs and our small incomes. Plus, my credit was in the crapper due to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy I filed when winding down one of my businesses back in Pennsylvania. So I couldn't even put my name on our lease applications unless there wasn't a credit check, which, by the way, always came with application fees. After a while, I began to theorize that landlords and management companies didn't actually conduct the credit checks and simply pocketed the fees. If the owners weren't in any particular hurry to find a renter, the managers and landlords could accumulate reasonably lucrative incomes by collecting application fees and simply pocketing the cash.

After seeing a conga-line of slums and shacks, dodging questions about our dogs and my credit rating, we finally discovered a small condo in our neighborhood within our price range. Just a few blocks away, it was on the third story of a four-story walk-up that looked like a well-maintained old-school beach motel, complete with the breezeway parking garage at the ground level. It was two bedrooms with a sweet balcony and the trade winds whipped through the place (no need for AC or fans). And, yes, the owners, a middle-aged Vietnamese couple who spoke very little English but used their daughter Jenny as a manager and translator, were fine with our dogs as long as they didn't make a lot of noise. Several days after applying, we were miraculously accepted pending our security deposit and lease-signing, which we provided immediately. The owners even let us move in a few days earlier than the official start-date of our lease, which was hugely generous.

At the end of August, 2011, we moved into our new place. Finally, a legitimate apartment in Hawaii with everything we needed -- and nice enough to have friends over without embarrassing ourselves. Three days later, however, everything went straight to hell and a four-month struggle against impending homelessness ensued.

To be continued next week...