Priced out of Paradise: Is the 'American Dream' out of reach in Hawaii?

Priced Out of Paradise Part 2

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's the "American Dream" to own a home, but how realistic is it in one of the most expensive states in the country?

"It's unattainable, even to someone who looks good on paper," said 33-year-old Shae Grimm, an architect. "You're trying to do your best, get it all right and strategize toward that -- and unless you have some other source of money then your regular 9-to-5 salary, it's not going to happen anytime soon,"

Experts say it's simple math. The median household income for Hawaii is $67,402, but the median price of single-family home reached an all-time high in September of $730,000.

Grimm and his girlfriend, 34-year-old Merlinda Garma, an attorney, seem to be the perfect candidates for homeownership. They've done everything right, they said, but they're struggling to break into the market.

"When you start looking into the housing market and seeing if you can afford something you kind of get disheartened," Garma said, "because you're like, Am I ever going to live outside of my parent's house? Or are we ever going to get out of this small studio? Where are we going to be able to raise our family? And so it becomes really hard and you do kind of feel like you're priced out of paradise -- even with the jobs that we hold."

Garma was born and raised in Hawaii. Her boyfriend, whose father was in the military, has called Hawaii home for the last 15 years.

Their combined annual earnings are about $120,000 -- that's nearly double the median household income. And yet -- the couple, like so many others -- are struggling to save for a down payment on a home.

Hawaii's homeownership rate ranked 47th in the nation in 2014, according to Census estimates. Some 57 percent of families own their home; that's 6.4 percentage points lower than the national average.

The median price of a single family home on the mainland also costs half a million dollars less than Hawaii's median.

Meanwhile, Hawaii ranks first in the nation for the percentage of multi-generational households. Some 11 percent of Hawaii households are multigenerational; the national average is 5.8 percent.

Garma, the attorney, said the couple makes too much to qualify for affordable housing, but still doesn't earn enough to buy a home.

Grimm added, "It's just not enough money to account for the basic necessities and then put away enough where you see that accumulate to a sum that would be usable for a down payment on a house or a condo."

The couple's currently renting a 420-square foot studio in town -- and they got a good deal at $1,000 a month with utilities included.

But they've sacrificed space for location with hopes every little bit they can save will get them into a place they can call their own.

"Even if we qualify for a $700,000 loan, can we really pay $4,000 a month on mortgage?" Grimm asked.

"Yeah, would we be comfortable paying that much money?" Garma said.
"Probably not," Grimm answered.
"No," Garma replied.
"Definitely not," said Grimm.
The couple is strict with their budget, but their paychecks go quickly. They pay about $1,300 for student loans monthly; that eats up the bulk of their monthly income. They're both working now, but after Grimm was laid off earlier this year -- putting aside for an emergency has become a top priority.
"The thing is -- even as well as we're doing -- I still feel like I'm only one mistake or one bad situation or whatever from being out on the street and that's the same situation a lot of other people are in," Grimm said. "You have a problem, and with the cost of living here -- you just can't recover."

This story is part of an ongoing series, "Priced out of Paradise," in which Hawaii News Now will explore Hawaii's high cost of living and why so many island families are struggling to make ends meet.

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