“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard.
Everybody knows that good times do not last forever. Thankfully, neither do bad times. The best time to plan for the future is when the sun is shining. The second best time is when it is not.
At the end of May, The Garden Island published in Guest Opinions a piece I wrote about grieving for life before the pandemic. “Grief for a World Killed by covid” seemed to resonate with readers, many of whom agreed that the emotional swings they were feeling may very well be identified as grief for the loss of a loved one. …Out of all the confusion, one thing has become clear to me. The world that I once knew is dead…Perhaps one day, I will find meaning in the loss. But for today, I grieve.
Two months later, things were worse. The infection and death numbers continued to climb, as well as the economic effects of the shut-downs. Unemployment levels in Hawai‘i were the highest in the nation, largely due to the 98% decline of tourists. It was at this time I wrote a second piece, also published, called “Finding Meaning for Hawai‘i”. In an effort to make the loss of what was meaningful, I envisioned a Hawai‘i when we were able to return to a “new normal”. I identified the three greatest problems in Hawai‘i (pre-pandemic) as homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and over-tourism. I made a radical suggestion that the solution for one (over-tourism) may be able to provide the capital for the solution of the other two. I suggested that instead of setting a goal of returning to the 2019 levels of 10,424,995 tourist arrivals, we use this forced lull to re-think what would be a sustainable and acceptable level we want for Hawai‘i. I suggested erecting an economic fence around Hawai‘i that would raise the cost for visitors by about 62% by creating a visitor tax that would create 10 billion dollars of new revenue to the state government while perhaps reducing the number of visitors by half. By making Hawai‘i about as expensive to visit as New York or Japan, the “invisible hand” of economics would raise the average amount spent by tourists from a remarkably small amount of $195 per day. Unlike the first article, this one got a lot of pushback from readers. Some questioned my sanity, some questioned my compassion, and some questioned my motivations. To all, let me clarify my objective.
When the pandemic is over, what should Hawai‘i do to make life better for the people that live here?
Legislation in Hawai‘i moves at an incredibly slow rate. Many times, our elected officials choose to address what is urgent rather than what is necessary. Our 2021 state budget of $8.4 billion is expected to fall short by at least $3.3 billion.
Tourism levels are not projected to return to 2019 levels until at least 2025, if ever. For now, the problem over over-tourism is pau, and not in a good way. Thousands are out of work, and many hotels, car rental companies, restaurants, and retail shops will not be able to last until the sun shines again.
I believe only government has the authority and capacity to guide us through these times. I also believe that the 4th biggest problem in Hawai‘i is that our government is inefficient and ineffective. They are certainly not innovative, nor decisive. They have forgotten that they represent the people, not the preservation of existing systems or the status quo. We need a new breed of lawmakers that are willing to “break the box” and solve problems at the risk of their political careers.
So, what if our state were to be given new revenue of $10 billion/year? Conventional politics would opt for balancing the budget and go forward without making sacrifices to existing expenditures. This would be wrong. As the saying goes, “you got to dance with the one that brung you.” Revenues culled from the visitor industry should go to training and employing displaced workers for different employment first. Hotels that shutter could be bought by the state to provide a new housing paradigm of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. At an average acquisition cost of $200,000 per room (less the common areas of the hotel) rooms could be rented at $700/month, far less than the current rental rates. I look at the perennial lack of at least 1,000 qualified teachers in our public schools. Surely, we can implement a training program for the college graduates currently in tourism to become educators, and provide an affordable living space that does not eat a disproportionate amount of their salaries. These teacher hotels would be like living in a dormitory, and could use the common areas of the hotel for cafeteria like meals. Such a hotel would need janitors, cooks, maintenance workers and managers as well.
The same concept could be used for homelessness. The first step would be to make homelessness not an option for anyone. State owned hotels may be assigned to the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol addicted, and the underemployed. All have unique needs and can be tailored to those needs. Additional employment could be found in mental health counselors, social workers, and other support staff living in the same facilities as those that used to be on the streets. Many need intensive levels of assistance to cope, and a dedicated facility would be able to provide that.
Regarding affordable housing, the SROs could be a step up to conventional home ownership. A $200,000 mortgage at today’s interest rates would cost $843/month, unheard of for any living space in Hawai‘i today. Eased financial qualifications and equity participation programs would give many a chance to own their living space and have a chance for advancement.
If our three biggest problems were to be able to be solved by such an implementation, and it is not, perhaps our biggest problem is the fourth mentioned. Our government would prove that it is unwilling or unable to implement changes that can make Hawai‘i the paradise that it could be for the people that live here. We must start the conversation now, when things are dark. ThinkTech Hawai‘i recently taped a panel discussion called “Finding Meaning for Hawai‘i.” It featured myself, Dennis Esaki, Ricky Cassiday, and Jim Edmonds with moderator Mark Shklov. It shows how 4 very diverse people with differing viewpoints and opinions can have a civilized, non-contentious discussion of making Hawai‘i a better place.
The show can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/6kQr76jzTzy
It is our hope that our leaders engage in a conversation about our future. If they don’t, we may just need better leaders.
Nolan Ahn is a resident of Lihue.