The destruction unleashed by Kilauea is exposing fault lines in Hawaiian society, focusing scrutiny on the state’s severe housing shortage and the questionable land-use regulations that governed the development of one of the state’s last bastions of affordable property.
PAHOA, Hawaii — Jaris Dreaming built his spacious, solar-powered home in a clearing of Polynesian jungle. He drinks rainwater caught from the sky and eats avocados from trees in his backyard. Mainlanders express envy when they hear how he bought nearly 100 acres of Hawaii’s Big Island for just over $100,000.
But there’s a catch to this off-grid paradise: Dreaming lives a short stroll from a lava-spewing rift of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
The growing ferocity this month of Kilauea’s eruptions, which are burying home after home under rivers of molten rock, has provoked questions about how thousands of families managed to put down stakes in such a disaster-prone domain in the first place.
Puna, the magnificently forested region of the Big Island where some of Kilauea’s most intense eruptions are taking place, ranks among the most remote corners of the United States, luring real-estate developers, renegades and modern-day homesteaders with colossal appetites for risk. Since the 1970s, when Vietnam veterans and other wanderers began settling here, Puna has emerged as a place where people could drop out, reinvent themselves, maybe grow a bit of pakalolo — as cannabis is called in Hawaii.
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“We have a reputation for being something of a pirate’s lair,” said Dreaming, 64, a musician and contractor who was raised in New Jersey with the name John Fattorosi. “But we really just want to live freely in a place of stunning beauty without anyone telling us what to do.”
While rattling people here who generally want little to do with mainstream culture, the destruction unleashed by Kilauea is also exposing fault lines in Hawaiian society, focusing scrutiny on the state’s severe housing shortage and the questionable land-use regulations that governed the development of one of the Aloha State’s last bastions of affordable property.
Real-estate speculators set their sights on the Big Island almost immediately after Hawaii became the 50th state admitted to the Union, in 1959. By 1960, a developer had carved the area encompassing Leilani Estates, the now-evacuated rural outpost overrun by lava flows in some areas, into more than 2,000 housing lots.
The land developers minimized any volcanic risks, and were not without support: Gordon MacDonald, a prominent volcanologist at the University of Hawaii, bolstered the launch of Leilani Estates by claiming that there was little risk to the development from a volcanic eruption — even though lava flows had just destroyed the nearby town of Kapoho.
In a column on the area’s history for the news website Honolulu Civil Beat, Alan D. McNarie said the risks since then have only become more apparent. “The odds may be considerably worse than Dr. MacDonald predicted back in 1960,” McNarie said. Citing figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, he noted that about 40 square miles of the island were buried in fresh lava between 1983 and 2003 alone.
Affordable land in a high-priced state
For many of those who continued to buy homes, the lure continued to be cheap housing in a tropical wonderland.
Hawaii has what may be the highest statewide home prices in the United States, with the median home value in the state at about $605,000, according to the housing website Zillow. And while the unemployment rate is low at around 2 percent, that figure obscures other problems. Hawaii had the highest cost of living of any state in 2017, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, driven largely by housing prices. Zoning restrictions in parts of the archipelago and the use of private residences as vacation rentals constrict available affordable housing even further.
The result: Even though Hawaii’s economy seems to be strong, wage increases have trailed the climb in home prices, fueling an exodus of people from the state. For some who don’t want to leave, or for mainlanders seeking to move to Hawaii, the far-flung areas of the Big Island hold allure.
“We’re 40,000 housing units from anywhere near adequate to easing the need for places for people to live in Hawaii,” said Carl Bonham, an economist at the University of Hawaii. “That’s why Puna is an option no matter its remoteness or risks.”
A frontier mindset about laws, codes
Many homes in Puna are not built to code, or are built in zones where lava flows have already wiped out previous developments, which some residents attribute to the frontier mindset here. Others, however, contend that public officials have not enforced existing regulations as strictly as they could have.
Many of the subdivisions in Puna were created in the 1960s before the first lava hazard maps, drawn in the mid-1970s, said Daryn Arai, deputy planning director for the County of Hawaii.
“If we knew back then what we know now, things would probably be different,” Arai said. But he added that the county currently has no regulations that apply directly to lava flow hazard zones, aside from building codes that establish wind and seismic safety standards. Those generally apply, however, to how a house is constructed, not where it is built.
Meanwhile, many homeowners are scrambling as the lava flows advance.
“I scoured Hawaii on different trips to find the most affordable place to settle,” said Amber Sengir, 60, a computer chip designer who moved here last August from Portland, Oregon. She said she bought her home in cash for $240,000 — much less than the median price of $760,000 for a home in Oahu.
Now, Sengir said, she is desperately trying to save some possessions in case the lava flows overrun her home, which is uninsured for such an event.
Still, Sengir took a more conventional route to living in Leilani than some of her neighbors.
Howie “Sunray” Rosin, a Brooklyn-born plumber, moved to the Big Island in 1997, but only recently was able to afford to move to Leilani when the owner of a home nearing foreclosure allowed him to live on the property in exchange for paying property taxes of about $2,000 a year.
“I got incredibly lucky,” said Rosin, 48, while guiding visitors around the dilapidated villa where he now lives. “This place is wilder than you can imagine,” Rosin, also a musician and Navy veteran, added. “Many people are willing to risk living next to a volcano because the living is cheap.”
When developers were carving up Puna back in the 1960s and ’70s, many investors on the mainland bought lots in the lava lands sight unseen. In some cases, public officials leveraged their power into cobbling together real-estate deals on the Big Island from which they could benefit.
At the time, basic infrastructure — things like paved roads, sewage systems, running water and electricity — was lacking. Subdivisions such as Leilani now have some of those services, but many residents still rely on rain catchment tanks for water. Just a few miles away, many homeowners live entirely off the grid, on even cheaper land parcels.
Some build atop lava flows that buried other houses
In some parts of Puna, newcomers are building nearly directly on fields of hardened lava from eruptions that destroyed other communities. For instance, an eruption of Kilauea in 1990 destroyed about 100 homes in the community of Kalapana. Less than 30 years later, dozens of homes now stand atop the flow field that swallowed Kalapana. The homes, some built without heed to code, lack ties to the electricity grid and sewage systems. Residents collect water in catchment tanks.
Often, banks won’t issue a traditional mortgage on such properties, but those determined to come here have found other ways to finance their ventures.
“On some days we can hear the roaring of the eruptions in Puna, like a jet engine taking off,” said Rainbow Foster, 33, who bought a home and a patch of land on the lava field with her husband three years ago for $55,000 in an owner-financed deal.
“Our credit rating wasn’t good and we had very little money,” said Foster, who is self-employed, as is her husband, Tony, 44. They get by doing odd jobs and selling tie-dyed T-shirts, but cherish the sense of freedom they have in Puna to raise their two children. Some of their neighbors have evacuated, but Foster said that isn’t an option for their family.
“This is the life we chose,” said Foster, who grew up in Puna. “We’re hanging tight.”