Not Even Molten Lava Can Cool This Hot Housing Market
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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

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.”


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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