Not Even Molten Lava Can Cool This Hot Housing Market - Kanebridge News
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Not Even Molten Lava Can Cool This Hot Housing Market

The eastern section of Hawaii’s Big Island continues to attract home buyers searching for a cheap piece of paradise

By CHRISTINE MAI-DUC
Sun, Jan 21, 2024 7:00amGrey Clock 5 min

PUNA, Hawaii—In 2018, a large volcanic eruption spewed lava, rock and ash into the middle of a subdivision here, gobbling up more than 700 homes and displacing thousands of residents in a slow-motion disaster. Today, it is Hawaii’s fastest-growing region.

Land in an active lava zone, it turns out, is relatively cheap. Lured by a shot at attainable homeownership in paradise, island dwellers and mainland transplants alike have been flocking to this area in the shadow of Kilauea, driving up prices in the Puna District. Still, the area remains one of the last affordable refuges on the cheapest island in Hawaii, America’s most expensive state.

“In terms of the last bastion of affordability, Puna is it,” said Jared C. Gates, a Realtor who was raised on Oahu and came to the Big Island for college in the 1990s. He purchased his first home in 2005, a modest fixer-upper in Puna, on his salary as a waiter.

Over the past few years, he has been getting more business in Leilani Estates, the neighbourhood where the 2018 eruption began.

None of the homes that were inundated by lava have been rebuilt. Many homeowners have sold their properties to neighbours or the county in a federally funded buyback program, but that land remains vacant for now. The land has been so transformed that it is hard for remaining owners to know even where their property begins and ends.

“It took out roughly a third of the subdivision; totally surreal,” Gates said last fall. “And houses are selling there again.”

Among Gates’s listings that day was a three-bedroom, two-bath home with lush landscaping, two blocks from the mile-wide lava field where heat and steam still radiate from vents in the petrified landscape. “It’s a beaut,” he said. “It will sell.”

Three weeks later it did, for $325,000, cash.

The story of how serene-looking slices of suburbia came to inhabit an active volcanic rift zone is well-known here. In the 1960s, land speculators—aided by a new county government hungry for tax revenue—bought thousands of acres and carved it into lots of an acre or more that were snapped up by investors.

There were virtually no requirements that developers pave roads, place utility lines or build other essential infrastructure. To this day, there is no wastewater treatment plant or hospital. Many of the district’s 51,000 residents rely on filtered rainwater and cesspools to dispose of sewage.

Early buyers included Native Hawaiians looking for an affordable place to call home and mainland hippies intent on off-grid living. As home prices rose in Hawaii and across the nation, however, more working families and mainland retirees went hunting for deals on the Big Island.

County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who represents Puna, said rush-hour traffic on the rural, two-lane highway that connects Puna to Hilo, the county seat roughly 20 miles away, is so bad that she leaves her home 1.5 hours early to get to work.

County officials say rules tied to federal funding bar local government from building affordable housing in lava zones 1 and 2, which are the riskiest and make up most of lower Puna. State law also prohibits them from spending most local money on private subdivisions, meaning that roads are largely maintained by owner associations.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said that while the county has added a new firehouse, police station and park facilities there in recent years, the county has limited funds to make major investments in high-risk areas.

“Are we going to invest public money in a high-risk place…knowing that whatever you build could be taken out by lava at any time?” said Roth.

The lack of some modern conveniences has scarcely slowed the flow of newcomers.

Like many places in the U.S., an influx of remote workers during the pandemic has helped send the housing market here into overdrive.

Among the recent arrivals are David Booth and his partner, Juan Polanco. The former Phoenix residents had been brainstorming tropical locations where they could slash their living expenses and ease into retirement.

“The attraction to the Big Island was affordability,” said Booth, 61, who now works remotely. He and Polanco, 59, paid cash for a 1,500-square-foot home that had been split into three units with separate entrances. “You can’t have this on any other island for this price point.”

The property sits on a 1-acre lot in Hawaiian Paradise Park, a subdivision located in the less-risky lava zone 3. Homes with repeated sales in the neighbourhood have seen a nearly 800% appreciation in price since 2000, according to data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Properties in lava zones 1 and 2—some with sweeping oceanfront views—were far cheaper, Booth said. In the end, the risk of losing their nest egg to a natural disaster, and the difference in insurance rates, were deal breakers.

They are getting used to bringing in their drinking water and dealing with vicious fire ants. The slow-paced lifestyle and prospect of early retirement are worth it, he said.

They have listed the two other units as vacation rentals, and their first guests arrive next week.

“We are overwhelmed with the amount of beauty here and just how much more relaxed we feel,” said Booth. “We’re building a whole new life here.”

Three years ago, Travis Edwards, 48, was driving delivery trucks and living with his mother in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

He was sick of the traffic, wildfires and car thefts, he said. Upon retiring, his mother sold her house and paid cash for a 1-acre lot with two units in Leilani Estates, surrounded by avocado and citrus trees. Lava insurance rates in lava zone 1, the riskiest area that encompasses the entire subdivision, were so high that they simply stopped paying for it, he said.

He mostly shrugs off the dangers, reasoning that they would be reckoning with fires and earthquakes on top of a lower quality of life back in Southern California.

“It’s just paradise,” said Edwards, who now drives limousines part-time. “The rest of the world doesn’t exist when you’re here.”

Rising prices on the east side have left Puna native Chantel Takabayashi feeling stuck. A single mother of three, she works 16 hours a day as a state prison guard in Hilo. She would like to buy a home closer to work and better schools but has been priced out of most neighbourhoods she has considered.

“I make pretty decent money and I work long, endless hours, and I still can’t afford better housing,” she said.

A home in the Kalapana Gardens neighbourhood.

Liz Fusco, who manages more than 100 rental properties for Hilo Bay Realty in Pahoa, said that during the pandemic, she saw three-bedroom homes in parts of Puna that once fetched $1,500 a month rent for as much as $2,300.

Most of the applicants were mainlanders, she said, with stellar rental histories, plenty of income and pristine credit. Units that would typically take more than a month to rent were getting leased in three days.

Tina Garber, who has lived in the Puna area for 21 years, has been displaced twice in the past 18 months after the homes she was renting went up for sale.

Currently, she is paying $750 a month—three-quarters of her monthly income as a housecleaner—for a 400-square-foot studio surrounded on three sides by cooled lava. Her landlord just told her it will be listed for sale in April.

“People that come over here with money, they do not realise that it is so hard to make it here,” Garber said. “They think, ‘Oh, a good deal in Hawaii.’ But it puts a lot of pain and suffering on local folks.”



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Home prices declined at a faster pace in May in major cities, while other data show a mixed picture for the world’s second-largest economy

By REBECCA FENG
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 3 min

China’s broken housing market isn’t responding to some of the country’s boldest stimulus measures to date—at least not yet.

The Chinese government has been stepping up support for housing and other industries in recent months as it tries to revitalize an economy that has  continued to disappoint  since the early days of the pandemic.

But fresh data for May showed that businesses and consumers remain cautious. Home prices continue to fall at an accelerating rate, and fixed-asset investment and industrial production, while growing, lost some momentum.

“China’s May economic data suggest that policymakers have a lot to do to sustain the fragile recovery,” Yao Wei, chief China economist at Société Générale, wrote in a client note on Monday.

The worst pain is in the property sector, which has been struggling to deal with oversupply and weak buyer sentiment since 2021, when a multiyear  housing boom ended . The market still doesn’t appear to have found a floor, even after Beijing rolled out its most aggressive stimulus measures so far  in mid-May  in hopes of restoring confidence.

In major cities, new-home prices fell 4.3% in May compared with a year earlier, worse than a   3.5% decline in April, according to data released Monday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Prices in China’s secondhand home market tumbled 7.5%, compared with a 6.8% drop in April.

Home sales by value tumbled 30.5% in the first five months of this year compared with the same months last year.

“This data was certainly on the disappointing side and may ring some alarm bells, as May’s policy support package has not yet translated to a slower decline of housing prices, let alone a stabilisation,” said Lynn Song, chief China economist at ING.

Economists had also been hoping to see a wider recovery this month after Beijing started  rolling out  a planned issuance of 1 trillion yuan, the equivalent of $138 billion, in ultra-long sovereign bonds in May. The funds are designed to help pay for infrastructure and property projects backed by the authorities. Investors  gobbled up  the first batch of these bonds.

Monday’s bundle of economic data, however, underlined how the country still isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Retail sales, a key metric of consumer spending, rose 3.7% in May from a year earlier, compared with 2.3% in April, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. While the trend is heading in the right direction, it is still a relatively subdued level of growth, and below what most economists believe is needed to kick-start a major revival in consumer spending.

The expansion in industrial production—5.6% in May compared with a year earlier—was down from April’s 6.7% increase. Fixed-asset investment growth, of which 40% came from property and infrastructure sectors, also decelerated, to 3.5% year-over-year growth in May from 3.6% in April.

Key to the sluggish economic activity data in May—and China’s outlook going forward—is the crisis in the property market, which has proven hard for policymakers to address.

The property rescue package in May included letting local governments buy up unsold homes, removing minimum interest rates on mortgages, and reducing payments for potential home buyers. It also included as its centerpiece a $41 billion so-called re-lending program launched by the People’s Bank of China, which would provide funding to Chinese banks to support home purchases by state-owned firms.

The hope was that by stepping in as a buyer of last resort for millions of properties, the government would manage to mop up unsold housing inventory and persuade wary home buyers to re-enter the market. In turn, Chinese consumers, who have  most of their wealth  tied up in real estate, would feel more confident about spending again, thereby lifting the overall economy.

But the size of the re-lending program wasn’t big enough to convince home buyers, said Larry Hu , chief China economist at Macquarie Group. “Meanwhile, their income outlook also stays weak given the current economic condition,” he said.

For the property market to bottom out and reach a new equilibrium, mortgage rates, which stand at around 3-4% in China, need to be as low as rental yields, which are currently below 2% in major cities, said Zhaopeng Xing, a senior China strategist at ANZ. He said that a large mortgage rate cut will need to happen eventually.

The other key part of China’s push to revive growth revolves around the manufacturing sector, with leaders  funnelling more investment  into factories to boost output and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign suppliers of key technologies.

The result has been a surge in production. But with domestic consumption not strong enough to absorb all those goods, many factories have been forced to cut prices and seek out more overseas buyers.

Data released earlier this month showed that  Chinese exports rose  faster in May than the month before.

However, the export push is  butting into resistance  as governments around the world worry about the impact of cheap Chinese competition on domestic jobs and industries. The European Union last week said it would  impose new import tariffs  on Chinese electric vehicles, describing China’s auto industry as heavily subsidised by the government, to the point where other countries’ automakers can’t fairly compete.

The U.S.  has also hit  Chinese cars and some other products with hefty duties, while countries including Brazil, India and Turkey have opened antidumping investigations into Chinese steel, chemicals and other goods.

Beijing says such moves are protectionist and that its industries compete fairly with global rivals.