Kona Purdy doesn’t want to live anywhere but Hawaii. As a Native Hawaiian, she wants her children to grow up like her: rooted in their culture, and nurtured by the mountains and ocean.
But raising a family in Hawaii means squeezing nine people into a four-bedroom house — rented with relatives — in Waipahu, a suburb of Honolulu. It felt cramped, but the Purdys accepted that it was the price of living in their homeland.
“We boxed ourselves into one room,” Purdy said of her family of four’s living arrangements.
Their share of the monthly rent is $2,300. When the rent went up, the Purdys realized they could no longer afford to live in Hawaii.
“I was very busy working, trying to make ends meet,” he said. “We never took our children to the beach. We didn’t go hiking.”
It is increasingly common for Hawaii residents to be priced out of the Aloha State, where the median price for a single-family home topped $900,000 during the pandemic. On Oahu, the most popular island and home to Honolulu, the median price is over $1 million.
Many residents work in low-wage service jobs, and financial hardship is especially significant for Native Hawaiians. A state analysis published last year shows that a person working 40 hours a week needs to earn $18 an hour to pay for housing and other necessities in Hawaii, but the state minimum wage currently $12 per hour.
Many, like the Purdys, headed to Las Vegas.
According to 2021 population estimates from the US Census Bureau, the largest growth of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations is in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, and Sacramento County, California. The largest decline in Native Hawaiian residents was in Honolulu.
Hawaii residents spend an average of 42.06% of their income on rent, which is the highest of any state, according to an analysis by Forbes Home. California ranks second, but with a smaller share of income going to rent: 28.47%.
Estimates from American Community Survey shows that in 2011, there were about 296,400 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and about 221,600 in the continental US A decade later, those numbers have dropped. In 2021, there are about 309,800 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and about 370,000 in other states.
“There is no Hawaii without Hawaiians,” said Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters, who is Native Hawaiian. His five siblings have moved to the continental US.
Las Vegas is desirable to the Purdys because it is a popular vacation destination for Hawaii residents, which means the family is likely to visit often. In addition, the cost of living is very low.
So in 2017, they uprooted their family and moved to Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas in Clark County, where they could rent a two-bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month.
Far from the shores of Hawaii, they felt like “fish out of water,” Purdy said.
“So it’s really ‘eha,'” Purdy said, using the Hawaiian word for painful, “because you’re cut off from the land, where we’re so connected, born and raised here.”
But even though they were nearly 3,000 miles from home, Hawaiian culture was all around them. Thanks to many other transplants, the Las Vegas area is full of restaurants that serve the taste of Hawaii and cultural events that express Hawaiian pride.
There is even a real estate brokerage that helps families move from the islands – run mostly by former Hawaii residents.
“You go into any store in any part of the valley and you’ll find someone from Hawaii working there or shopping there,” Purdy said.
A three-bedroom house priced at $300,000 in a Las Vegas suburb would be $1.2 million in Honolulu, said Terry Nacion, a Native Hawaiian realtor. He left Hawaii for Las Vegas in 2003 because home ownership felt unattainable. “Going home, you have to pass on your house or you have to work four jobs,” he said.
A few months after they moved, about 20 other relatives followed, including Purdy’s mother, uncle and sister Lindsay Villarimo.
“As time went by, trying to raise money became tiring,” said Villarimo. “It is unfortunate that the choice we made. Most of us, I think we were just priced out of the house. ” When Villarimo and her family decided to move to Nevada, her husband Henry hadn’t even left Hawaii.
The affordability of Las Vegas is “liberating,” he said. With cheaper rent and groceries, and no state income tax, he could increase his salary even more.
“We just lived it at the dollar store,” he said. In Hawaii, there is no such store.
For Hawaii residents, the draw of Las Vegas can all be traced back to a downtown hotel that opened in 1975, author Dennis M. Ogawa said.
The hotel was originally catered to Californians, but he struggled to get business. Recalling the popularity of gambling in Hawaii, it diverted the attention of visitors from the islands. “Aloha Spoken Here” became the slogan of the hotel.
In 2019, Doreen Hall Vann decided to move to Las Vegas to be closer to her daughter, who moved to Seattle for more job opportunities.
on Facebook, he was puzzled by how cheap everything was, from bread to rent. But she began to worry about staying connected to her culture while living far from home, especially since she had pulled her son, then 6, out of his Hawaiian language immersion school.
“It’s like when you give birth and you cut your umbilical cord. For us Native Hawaiians, our ‘piko’ is the source of life,” said Hall Vann, using the Hawaiian word for navel or umbilical cord. “If we move off the island … we’re not connected because we are no longer in our land.”
But in his new home, he found that he had more time and less stress.
“I was very busy at home trying to make a living,” he said. “When I moved to Vegas, it really put a stop to my life and I saw things more clearly.”
That allowed him to join the Las Vegas Hawaiian Civic Club, where he now teaches Hawaiian.
“We have our people, our home, our community is thriving,” he said.
In Las Vegas, Purdy’s children began learning hula and the family enjoyed “hoolaulea,” cultural festivals larger than Hawaiian celebrations.
But in August 2021, exactly four years after leaving Hawaii, the Purdys returned home.
Purdy said his wife wanted to take care of her mother, who was starting to show signs of dementia. Their daughter was also accepted into Kamehameha Schools, a highly selective and relatively affordable private school system that gives admissions preference to students of Hawaiian ancestry.
The family moved to Kapolei, a suburb of Honolulu not far from where they used to live, to share a five-room house with their relative. Now that the Purdys have three children, they rent out two of the bedrooms.
Purdy tries to find time to take her children to hula lessons. Since returning home, the family has only been to the beach once.
“It’s a grind, it’s hard, it’s very expensive,” he said. “But I also feel like we’re exactly where we belong right now.”