Before we go any further, it’s important to note that Hawaii isn’t entirely to blame for the house-hunting awfulness in which this story is currently ensconced. By way of a recap, I moved here at the tail end of the Great Recession without a lot of money and bad credit, fresh off a contentious divorce and desperately trying to short-sell my house back in Pennsylvania. My current wife Joy and I decided to move to Hawaii not under the most ideal circumstances. We just made it happen, subsequently proving that it’s not easy but that it can be done. With the right planning, and without too many roots, it’s not really necessary to wait until after retirement to move to someplace beautiful.
Along those lines, as the story of our housing nightmare gets progressively worse, bear in mind that we never took for granted where we lived. We’ve experienced the hell out of the natural splendor of this place. Indeed, nearly every day on Oahu we hiked rain forests; or waded across miles-long sandbars with our dogs; or watched the sun set over Ala Moana and Waikiki; or cycled along unreal coastal roads. We rationalized that we didn’t need a spectacular living space given how the living space outside was universally more spectacular than any 3,000 square-foot McMansion on the mainland.
But Hawaii’s not blameless either. As I’ve noted before, owning large dogs and renting here is next to impossible, and we only ended up in our present, 2014 situation out of sheer tenacity and good fortune. Before that happened, though, we endured four soul-crushing living situations, each one offering great promise but turning out badly in the end.
Our refrain: Hawaii makes you work for it.
When we last convened here, I described how we finally landed a decent, affordable two-bedroom condo and had just moved in with our German Shepherd, Lolo, and our Australian Shepherd, Sam. The condo was just a few blocks from our previous apartment, and, in terms of history, it was located just across the street from President Obama’s old stomping ground, the Punahou School. All indications pointed to our situation vastly improving. Until, that is, a couple days after moving in.
I was busily preparing for my podcast with my friend and colleague at The Daily Banter, Chez Pazienza, when there was a knock at the door. It turned out to be our Vietnamese landlord, Mrs. Kwan, and her English-speaking daughter, Jenny. We exchanged greetings and then Mrs. Kwan handed me a letter. Before I had a chance to read it, she said in broken English, “Dogs not allowed in building! We told them but they not listen!”
“The dogs can’t live here.”
“What? Who says?” I replied. “The condo association,” Jenny nervously explained, “they wrote us this letter. There’s a rule that says no dogs.” My head was spinning — flashing images of our dogs in a shelter, of us scouring Craigslist again, of dilapidated flea-infested shacks, of more money flying out of our empty bank accounts to pay for yet another move.
“We have a lease!” I barked. “This isn’t on us. I don’t understand. You have to explain to them that we have a lease and this condo belongs to you!”
“We already tell them!” Mrs. Kwan shot back.
“This is absurd. They can’t kick us out, or seize our dogs. We have a lease with you, not them,” I was really stuck on the terms of the lease, naively believing it was binding no matter what. But, apparently, the condo association and its president superseded both the lease terms and the condo owners. The condo president was a mainland retiree — a 60-something “haole” (semi-derogatory Hawaiian word for “Caucasian”) who we’ll call “Mr. Potter” for anonymity’s sake, but appropriately illustrating the man’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Lionel Barrymore caricature.
We hadn’t even unpacked, and yet we were being told we had to leave. But where? We didn’t have any family on the island. We didn’t have any friends who could take our dogs. Suddenly I had visions of us living out of our car or in a dive motel — if the dive motels accepted dogs. Suddenly, our old studio apartment seemed like a palace. We had 30 days to find a new place or else the worst case scenario: the condo association was within its power to evict us from the building, and then what? But surely, Joy and I reasoned, the association president was a human being who could be reasoned with. We could explain the thousands of dollars we spent on the move. We could explain that our dogs are harmless. We could explain how difficult it is to find housing. Surely Mr. Potter would understand.
After I shut the door, what followed was a frantic several weeks in which we met repeatedly with our landlords and Mr. Potter to discuss the matter, while holding back our gag reflexes as we went back to rapidly-refreshing Craigslist. We wrote long letters explaining our dilemma to Mr. Potter. We privately strategized about legal action and whether we could afford a lawyer. We even contemplated the ludicrous idea of seeking a doctor to approve our dogs as service animals, this way the association would be required by law to allow us to stay. One thing was certain: our stress levels were off the charts, commensurate with not knowing whether we’d have a roof over our heads or whether the sheriff would suddenly knock on the door to “put us out.” Meanwhile, as if things weren’t peachy enough, both of our dogs began to suffer from chronic diarrhea, forcing us to routinely sprint down three flights of stairs before our dogs exploded inside the building within smelling distance of Mr. Potter.
Cutting to the chase, our lobbying efforts, along with a well-timed letter from an acquaintance of Joy’s who happened to be a member of an old Hawaii family that also happened to own the building, convinced the association to allow us to remain in the condo until January 1, 2012. We bought ourselves an additional three months in which to find new housing, and at least we had some wiggle room to conduct a reasonable search.
When mid-December rolled around, however, and we hadn’t found a damn thing, The Fear returned. Instead of enjoying our first real Christmas in Hawaii, we continued our frantic scramble against impending homelessness. What became crystal clear for us was that living in Honolulu was impossible. We’d always planned to eventually move to the Big Island — the island of Hawaii, the largest and youngest in the chain, so we opted to drastically accelerate our timeline and, at the very least, we had a family-member in Kona as a backstop. At the last possible minute, we found a small but furnished month-to-month rental in Waimea, on the northern end of the Big Island, complete with a small fenced-in yard for “the boys.”
So we spent our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 2011, moving to the Big Island. And not being as charitable as George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, we bid a hearty “mele kalikimaka and go fuck yourself” to Mr. Potter.
No, this wasn’t Hawaii’s fault, and it could’ve happened to condo renters anywhere. But Hawaii made finding the condo in the first place, and finding another place to go after the fiasco with Mr. Potter a thousand times more difficult in terms of both the cost and the availability of pet-friendly rentals in a region where, culturally-speaking, some ethnic groups regard dogs as either weapons for hunting or, in a few rare cases, livestock. Hawaii makes you work for it, and we were paying our dues in nearly every way.
Moving Inter-Island with Dogs at Christmas
Moving somewhere else in this state isn’t quite the same as moving somewhere in, say, New Jersey. Hawaii is, of course, a series of islands and moving your stuff to another island is considerably more complicated than loading up a UHaul and driving a hundred miles or so to a new place. Especially, once again, on a very thin budget, and with dogs.
Here’s how we did it. We rented a storage space and loaded up all of our non-essential possessions, for which we’d return when we could afford to literally ship it to the Big Island — moving inter-island can only take place by airplane and boat. While I handled moving the last of our things into the storage space and dropped off our car to be shipped (a two-week journey by boat!), Joy departed for Kona on a flight with Lolo, whose massive doggie travel crate could only fit aboard a particular flight — and, again, we were flying at Christmas when open flights weren’t easy to find. Then, the next day, I flew out with Sam, and we all convened at Joy’s uncle’s house. At the same time, we learned that there weren’t any UHaul or car rentals available due to the holidays, so we had no choice but to hire a taxi driver with a mini-van to transport us, our luggage and our dogs 40 miles north to our new place in Waimea.
If there’s one place in Hawaii that’s the polar opposite of Honolulu, it’s the small village of Waimea along the northern Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. Whereas Honolulu is like a mini-Los Angeles, with all of the same urban trappings, Waimea is more like Deadwood. Adjacent to what was once the largest cattle ranch in the U.S., Parker Ranch, and set along the lower slopes of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano at an elevation of around 2,500 feet, it more closely resembles the Pacific Northwest or even the lush hills of Ireland than Hawaii. It’s unlike any mental image of Hawaii you might have — green, cool, often rainy with a definite western cowboy vibe. I’ll come back to this, especially the rainy part.
Waimea residents inevitably bump into Rosanne Barr. A lot. Her macadamia nut farm is 10 miles or so east of Waimea, and in our short time there, she must’ve thought we were stalking her because we somehow ended up in the same restaurants or next to her at stop lights nearly every time we went to town. She could often be seen having lunch with her assistant at places like the wonderful Solimene’s, owned and operated by Chef Ippy Aiona, a former contestant on The Next Food Network Star. Oh, and George Clooney’s movie daughter in The Descendant‘s attended a private boarding school in Waimea. I’m making it sound way more glamorous than it really is.
After the holidays, Joy returned to Honolulu to wrap up her special collections job, and she remained there for a very, very long two months, while I lived with the dogs in Waimea. The very dark, very damp winter of 2012 was unlike anything I had imagined when I moved here, and there were times when I didn’t even feel like I was in Hawaii at all. And yes, in terms of living situations, the very worst was still to come.
To be continued next week…