Yeah, I know. I was laughing when I wrote the title too. Anytime you combine a sentence with, ‘affordable housing’, ‘Hawaii’, and ‘Key West’, you are going to get a chuckle or two. But, let’s have a go at it anyways whilst we wait for Best Korea to launch their ‘super mighty attack’.
A recent study came to light which inspired this here post. It seems if you are in Hawaii and making anything less than $83,700 a year (for a family of four), you are considered to be low income. This puts me about a ½ step above the urban outdoorsmen I come across frequently in my travels about the island. The biggest employer in Hawaii is the military. I don’t know much about the military but I suspect not too many people join our armed forces with the intention of getting wealthy. So who or how anyone is making anything remotely close to $83,700 a year out here is a mystery to me, but then, much like the inner workings of my ex girlfriend’s brain, making lots of money has always been a mystery to me. Something, something, hard work, education, dedication…whatever.
Compare this to the same number in Key West where the median income is a paltry $54,306 a year. Poverty wages compared to Hawaii. And just so you know, the biggest employer in Florida? Wallymart! Which tells you absolutely everything you need to know about the Sunshine State.
It really doesn’t matter. Both Hawaii and Key West have the same issue, low wage jobs and extraordinary high rents. It goes with the territory. Take a highly desirable location with nice weather, water activities, a laid back lifestyle, plus a premier world wide tourist destination, and affordable housing is going to be in short supply. Been like this for years and nothing is going to change it.
The local, county, and state governments on both said islands do pretend to address the issues of affordable housing. They put together commissions, have panel discussions, appoint people with important sounding titles, have public forums, bandy about fancy mathematical formulas as if this proves what affordable rents are, but it is really all just for show. A magic act to distract everyone from the real issue which is nobody can afford the goddam high rents in these places. In reality, the governments, the local corporate warlords, the slum lords, the landlords, and property owners have absolutely no interest in providing affordable housing to us, the great unwashed. Sure, the occasional housing project gets built here or there, but qualifying to get in is near impossible and even then, the rents are way too high. But those in charge simply do not care. As long as tourists are willing to pay the higher prices for shorter stays, why take a loss on local deadbeats who will be gone in a year leaving said properties in a shambles. The tourists are the prime customers in these places. And if by some miracle, rents did come way down to affordable levels, the islands would be inundated with thousands more people looking to move there.
So, for now, the rents are what they are and there is nothing which can be done about it. Yet you may ask, how does a scruffy, scraggly old pirate (the peanut’s words, not mine) manage to live in said exotic locales with such a paltry income and a complete lack of any work ethic?
The answer is simple: Smart living, intelligence, and charm, lots of charm…just kidding. It’s all smoke, mirrors, and bullshit. Actually, it’s a combination of all the above. Ok, maybe not so much the smart living, intelligence, and charm, but work with me.
I managed to live in the Florida Keys for 8 years and with the exception of but a few months at the marinas, never paid more than $600 a month for rent. No easy task but I did it. Out here in Maui, I’m paying $800 a month which is at the high end of what I can afford, but still within budget. And I have a much more better place to live in instead of a bug infested trashy trailer with a maniac drunk for a landlord. Fun times those were.
How was I able to live so cheap and live almost as cheap now? Here are a few tips to help any of you thinking of moving to not just the Keys (caution: Blatant affiliate link) or Hawaii, but nearly any high cost place. Said tips worked for me, they may work for you, if you are willing and able. Let’s forget the other costs of island living and just constipate on rent and lifestyle.
Firstly, what kind of life do you envision upon moving to an island paradise? Endless days of sitting on the beach? Playing in the water? Hanging out at the local watering holes? Yeah, it’s all there, right at your doorstep, however, even playing all the time will get boring. Eventually you are going to realize you need to have some semblance of an income so you can, like, you know, eat, have a roof over your head, a place to sleep, etc. No matter how much play time you think you will have, sooner or later, it will become apparent you are still living someplace and most of the stuff you thought you were leaving behind in your old life, still needs tending too. You’ll need to shop for groceries, cook, keep your place clean to a certain degree, do laundry, and other household chores. Island life is not all so different sometimes when it comes to the basics. Sure, you may be cooking over a grill mounted on the back of your boat, and doing laundry in a bucket, but these are chores which still need done. The upside is the water, the beaches, the watering holes, and all the fun stuff will still be there when you are finished.
Nextly, what is the minimum level of comfort you will be…um…comfortable living with? You may be used to a big 3 bedroom/two bath/two car garage on a cul de sac with an acre of yard back in Bugtustle. Can you comfortably live in an old wooden home with no yard, no scenery, no parking, one bathroom, no laundry, and quite possibly, several noisy roommates sharing said home? Or is a boat to your liking, even though you may have never stepped foot on anything larger than a canoe? It’s very different from what you may be used too. Creature comforts including things like furniture, running water, even a flushing toilet may not be available in some places. Laundry facilities could be miles away. Finding a safe place to park your vehicle may become an adventure. Your landlord may have certain restrictions on how you can live. No drinking, no drugs, no smoking, and no pets are pretty common and well within reason. But, and especially out here in Hawaii, a lot of landlords won’t allow the eating of meat and other things on property, being vegans and all, something I could never quite get the hang of. Just remember, it’s their property, their rules. If you agree to said rules, don’t get upset if you get evicted for eating a hamburger in your room.
Seriously, you need to examine what comforts you are willing to go without in order to achieve your dreams of living in paradise. The classic middle class lifestyle which you may be so used too simply does not exist in either of the aforementioned islands, unless you are making the median incomes described above, in which case, I doubt you are reading the Fritter.
Adjusting to life without many of the comforts you are used too is not as easy as it sounds. Not necessarily the big stuff like working electricity or running water, but the little things as well. Maybe the kitchen is not as well stocked, or the furniture is worn out, or the ac doesn’t work. Perhaps the location is remote and takes a long walk, a bicycle, or a dinghy just to get to a place to catch a bus to the store. Things like these, and many more come into play. What are you willing to go without? What is the minimum you absolutely have to have to live someplace, no matter where it is? When you answer such questions, honesty becomes very important here. It’s one thing to say you can live without such and such, quite another to put it into actual practice.
Now comes one of the more important aspects of moving to the islands. The budget. How much money will you need to live in the island paradise of your choice? How much income will you have? How much will you be spending on rent, food, utilities, playtime, transportation, and all the other things you’ll need? Set up a spreadsheet and start doing some calculations. Think these things through very carefully. Do some research. Read the local ads for the grocerterias in the islands. They are available online if you do some looking around. Check the local ads for rents and see what is available within your budget. Crunch some numbers and see what the results are. When you have said results, delete the spreadsheet and start over because the costs are going to be way more than you figgered. Guaranteed. Rents are going to be higher, food much higher, unexpected costs will come into play. Give yourself some serious wiggle room and go on the higher more expensive side when doing said calculations. Again, be honest with what you can actually afford or you may wind up in serious financial trouble before too long.
As always, with damn near everything I talk about regarding life in the islands, get rid of your debt, and minimalize. Before you make the journey to which ever island of your choosing, settle your accounts, and get rid of as much shit as you possibly can. You won’t be needing heavy winter clothing in a sub tropical climate. Furniture is too damn big and heavy to lug around. Appliances, lamps, bedding, all the usual crap can be had for just as cheap once you get to your destination as opposed to transporting it there, especially when it comes to moving to Hawaii where you’ll need to rent space in a container and hope the ship survives the ocean crossing without getting sunk by a hurricane or torpedoed by a Best Korea submarine. Leave as much shit behind as you can. Sell it, give it away, it’s all replaceable. Otherwise, when it comes time to leave the islands you’ll be having one of those, ‘moving back to the mainland yard sales’ you’ll see in the ads so often.
Assuming you have all your waterfowl properly aligned, now comes the even more harder part, actually finding a place to live. If you have a realistic number you must stay under for rent or purchase if you are perhaps looking at a boat, you can plug in said number into any of the many places to search for a place. Craigslist is a good place to start but beware as it has a lot of scams. Facebook has a lot of good buy/sell/rent groups for different areas and sometimes a good deal appears. Or run an ad ‘splaining what you are looking for and see what comes up. But again beware, scammers are everywhere especially in the islands. They’ll make promises, use fake photos in ads, and once they have your money, they are gone and you are screwed. Tip: If whilst perusing the ads in the area you are looking to relocate to, if you notice the same property being advertised repeatedly, or maybe with different photos, or in multiple areas, stay away. Chances are it’s a scam or the landlord is a real prick.
Speaking of money, many landlords may require cash only for rent and deposits. If you don’t have a local bank account where you are going, obtaining large amounts of cash may be difficult. Traveling long distances with said cash is not a good recommendation neither. Checks, PayPal, money orders, Western Union, or wire transfers may be your only option. Using a realtor helps keep the scammers at bay and might give you a bit more flexibility with payment methods, but you’ll most likely end up paying more for a place. Be clear in your negotiations with your future landlord. Explain if you are unwilling to travel with cash up front and see if they are willing to use other methods of payment as mentioned. If there are fees involved, offer to pay them, assuming said fees are not too out of line. Once you get a few rent payments made, both parties will relax a lot more and by then maybe other payment options will be available. If you are still using your bank back home, give them a travel alert and let them know there may be some transactions in the islands pertaining to rent and such. It helps protect you and prevents any embarrassing card or check denials.
It’s always best to see a place in person before committing to actually signing a lease but it’s not always convenient. If you are thousands of miles away and find a bargain which looks good on screen, do not send any money until you can arrange to go and see the place in person. This can get expensive as you may need to fly someplace or take a long road trip, only to find out the place is not what you expected, especially if you end up having to fly 4000 miles over the ocean. It’s a chance you need to decide if it’s worth it and try to have a back up plan in case the place you come to look at does not work out. This is where traveling light comes in real handy. But if you can’t go see the place, pass it up. There will be other places later. There always are.
When I was shopping for a boat in Key Largo, I was living in Ocala, Florida at the time, a real shithole some 500 miles away. But I wanted out of there so bad I would take my days off and drive all the way to the Keys and back in one or two days just to look at boats. It paid off in I was able to find one but still, a lot of miles to get it done. As for the place I now reside in Hawaii, I ran an ad in Maui CL, the landlady answered, sent pictures of the place, and I said, “screw it”. Jumped on a plane and came out without any back up plan. As it happens, this time it worked out. I was desperate to get out of Pa. and this deal could have easily backfired. As it is, the place worked out perfectly.
Still, I keep looking at places on Maui and the Big Island for down the road and if something catches my eye, particularly on the Big Island, I will most likely go rent for a week or month though AirBnB whilst I search for a new home. Should I wind up going back to the Keys on a boat, well, one of the things I take into account when looking at the ads is the logistics of getting to said boat and then what will be involved in sailing back to the Keys, unless it’s already there. So as you can see, there may be a lot of traveling before just the right place/boat turns up at the right time. Keep some money in reserve for the extra travel costs.
And just because you happen to find a place which suits your lifestyle, budget, and needs, don’t mean you can relax. Consider all rentals in the islands to be short term, even with a lease. At some point down the road the landlord will decide to raise your rent, kick you out for no apparent reason, or decide to sell the place. Make it a habit, even after you have moved in, to always be looking at the ads for another place. You never know when you may have to move again.
Finding an affordable place in a faraway land is tricky business, but with a bit of bravery, some flexibility, a lot of good research, and don’t forget the charm and bullshit, it can be done. I’ve gotten good at it. I follow the tips I’ve outlined on this post: looked at the lifestyle, set up a budget, stayed out of debt, dumped all my shit, and kept as many options open as possible. I feel confident now I could move to almost any island in Hawaii, or back to the Florida Keys, and stay within my own affordable lifestyle and budget.
The idea of a median income and affordable rents are meaningless. What counts is what you can afford, how comfortable you are willing to not be, and what kind of lifestyle is important to you. It is possible to live on an expensive tropical island, but just not in the way most people would be willing to live. Prioritize what is most important to your lifestyle, set your budget, and see what you can come up with. You may be surprised by how affordable it can be if you are willing to make some changes and be flexible in your thinking.
Island life ain’t for everybody. It takes some serious planning and a bit of daring, but for those who have done it, and done it right, it is well worth it.