The Big T’ings Facing Islanders

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - April 02, 2008

I’m told by people in the mortgage and real estate business that Hawaii has largely escaped the Mainland’s mortgage meltdown.

It seems that, with the housing demands of the military, the global rich man’s desire for a vacation or retirement home in paradise and the cultural reticence of many of Hawaii’s people to default on any loan (however preposterous its terms), the Islands’ mortgage default rate remains spectacularly low by Mainland standards.

Then why are so many of us still feeling so bad? Why do we feel a gnawing economic bellyache, a growing sense that things are getting worse ... and worse ... and worse?

It’s the little things - and the not so little things. Let’s start with a couple of little ones.

Last week I pondered a trip to the Big Island. I’ll admit that in recent years, while I’ve never flown on go! airlines, I’ve benefitted by its presence in the Hawaii market. Fly at an inconvenient time and the price was right: $39 one way, even $19 on one occasion.

Last week Hawaiian wanted $89 for a one-way ticket on any flight I could find three days before I wanted to leave. Aloha offered no better. I didn’t look at go!, for reasons of perhaps misplaced loyalty to the long-time local guys. By the end of the week, of course, Aloha had announced bankruptcy.

The problem, of course, is the cost of oil and the problem of too much capacity - the bane of the national airline industry: too many airlines with too many seats available for too few customers.

Hawaii knows this story better than most. The Islands have never provided sufficient business to support three airlines. Never. Third airlines have come and gone; none has found sufficient business to survive for long.

Tourist travel has certainly grown in recent years, but not enough to support three airlines - and certainly not enough to support three in an age of $100 per barrel oil.

It’s no big t’ing. I don’t have to visit a good friend in Hilo, eat that pork chop at the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook or drive the lush, incredibly beautiful Hamakua Coast. But I’ll miss them all.

Then there’s my local chop suey. It will go nameless, but I’ve supped on its noodles and pork and pickled cabbage for years. I have a waistline that proves my fidelity to the place and the quality of its cuisine.

But I broke my leg last fall, hobbled around a lot, drove not at all, and hadn’t been delegated the chop suey run. But recently, leg healed, I was sent to pick up Chinese.

I bought the food, but I suffered menu shock in the process. Every dish had gone up in price $1.50 minimum, some $2, some $2.50, a few $3.

Who’s to blame? Nobody, I suppose. That cost of oil again, no doubt. Everything gets shipped in, after all. Higher wages for waitresses and cooks and cleaners - they’re suffering sticker shock themselves from the local drugstore to the local supermarket to the local service station. They need a raise.

But let’s go back to that mortgage crisis that, supposedly, Hawaii hasn’t experienced. Yes, we have. We’ve been in a mortgage crisis for years - a crisis in which too few could afford a mortgage to buy any home at all.

We are, I’m told, in a period of adjustment in home prices. From a high of $645,000 for a home on Oahu, we have “adjusted” down to $600,000. That’s a crisis of monumental proportions, a truly big t’ing. And that big t’ing spells homelessness for thousands upon thousands of people - not for the world’s rich men, but for thousands upon thousands of local people.

The rich men of the world can continue to buy our homes - and continue to play with our lives - men like Malaysia’s Quek Leng Chan, owner of Molokai Ranch, who last week closed it down. Why? Because Molokai residents had protested Quek’s plan to build houses on Molokai’s La’au Point.

More than 120 Molokai residents lost their jobs with the closing. The Island’s unemployment rate doubled in the process, to something in the neighborhood of 12 percent.

Call it the Molokai meltdown.

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