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Leaving Lanai: A billionaire's Hawaii could displace longtime residents

Larry Ellison plans a reboot for the island; families who've lived there for generations worry they can't afford to stay

While his stepson Johnny naps, Rico Bicoy continues to pack and prepare for the family's move while his 3-year-old daughter, Kazaiyah-Rose Bicoy carries a pink blanket.
Logan Mock-Bunting for Al Jazeera America

LANAI CITY, Hawaii — A punishing Hawaiian sun rises on the first day of the final week in which Lilinoe Bicoy, 33, and her family of seven will share the same simple, plantation-style cottage.

Friends and relatives file in and out of the sea-foam green garage, fists full of furniture legs and fishing poles to load onto truck beds. Whatever remains will go to the thrift store down the red-dusted road, one of the island of Lanai’s three main strips of pavement.

“Everything’s free, everything’s got to go,” Bicoy says. A pit bull named Bossy sits obediently at her tattooed feet, panting in the heat and dust.

The three-bedroom home Bicoy and her family must vacate was owned by Bicoy’s parents until they divorced and sold it two days after Christmas. Bicoy, a nursing student and mother of five, and her husband, who works construction, say they cannot afford any of the available rental houses on the island, which their family has lived on for four generations.

A flyer at the local grocery advertises a tin-roofed bungalow with three bedrooms for $2,495 monthly. Another heralds a boxy, two-bedroom unit for $2,300. On Lanai, the average annual per capita income is less than $22,000.

Rico Bicoy gives away some of the family's possessions as part of the moving process.
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“We are pretty responsible,” Bicoy says. “We have goals. We’re not some welfare case. We don’t even qualify for welfare. But I can’t afford these prices.”

This is Larry Ellison’s Lanai: 140 square miles of personal paradise, save for 3,000 deep-rooted residents. Ellison, a tech entrepreneur and the fifth richest person in the world, owns 97 percent of the island, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, including a third of the housing, the water utility and a pair of resorts that are Lanai’s economic engine. He bought the land and properties in a single real estate deal in 2012.

Lanai’s local population is composed of the primarily Filipino descendants of workers recruited as early as the 1920s to help James Drummond Dole start up what was once the world’s most productive pineapple plantation. When cheap labor in Asia usurped Hawaiian pineapple farming in the 1990s, the endless rows of spiky fruit that carpeted the island were replaced by luxury tourism. David Murdock, the billionaire who built the island’s twin hotels now managed by Four Seasons, never profited from them. Low occupancy lost him millions of dollars per year.

Murdock’s failed second shot at economic viability for this company town had widespread repercussions. After Dole’s last 1992 harvest, a population of pineapple pickers had little choice but to leave the island or take jobs with the hotels. With the resorts underperforming, the future looked grim. There were massive layoffs. Buildings fell into disrepair. But while the sale of the island to Ellison has stirred up new hope for a profitable future, it’s also brought pervasive anxiety over changes ahead.

A neighborhood of plantation homes in Lanai City. The original homes were used by workers in the pineapple plantations.
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Ellison bought Lanai with a vision of morphing the island into the world’s first 100 percent green community. In his quest to realize that plan, he began with a major effort to recast the hotels into getaways for the super-rich in order to make them profitable again. Last year Ellison ordered a $75 million renovation of the Murdock-built Four Seasons Lanai Resort as part of his intention to stabilize the island’s sputtering economic machine. The resort reopened Feb. 1 with its own Jimmy Choo retail store and Nobu restaurant. Nightly room and suite rates range from $1,075 to $21,000.

As the island shifts to cater to patrons of a resort festooned with lava rock grottoes and $400 champagne bottle service, locals worry that their simple, rise-and-fall-to-sleep-with-the-sun lifestyle will go the way of Dole pineapples.

And while affordable housing was scarce on Lanai long before Ellison bought up the island, lately the problem has been exacerbated by an influx of construction workers for resort renovations. That’s why Bicoy says she’s been priced out. Locals fear the beginning of a trend of Lanai natives getting pushed off the island.

Will the housing market stabilize?, they wonder. Will there be a deluge of high-end development? Can Lanai maintain its rugged allure when the world’s moneyed elite start pouring in? The answers fall on the shoulders of the man whom residents reference as “Mr. Ellison,” a private person whom hardly a one of them has met.

When Ellison bought 98 percent of Lanai, he spent a large amount of money renovating different projects around the town, including restored Lanai Theater, which had not screened movies in over a decade.
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“People are coming now for the luxury, but what we want to do is make Lanai the destination, not the hotels,” says Lai Hanog, 33, a Native Hawaiian hula practitioner. “It’s more than just a small, simple town to me. I feel connected to the land and a responsibility to preserve and protect what we have. You don’t want to sit back and see everything be redone.”

Already there are changes sprouting in the residents’ neighborhood. Ellison renovated a two-screen cinema that had long been shuttered. He opened a heated, resortlike community swimming pool. There’s a new upscale market.

Alberta De Jetley is a farmer and publisher on Lanai. One of her major clients is the Nobu Lanai restaurant at the new Four Seasons Hotel.
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“The way I see it, it’s like the island is getting polished,” says Mike Carroll, an oil painter who moved here from Chicago in 2001 to open an art gallery. “Things are getting nicer, but it still has the plantation charm. If you get rid of the cars, it’s like you’re living in 1930s Hawaii. No traffic, no horns, no yelling. Even when it’s jam-packed, it’s not jam-packed.”

Without the resorts, Carroll notes, Lanai’s unemployment rate would skyrocket. His and other private businesses probably couldn’t survive. In this way, even many of those who are critical of Ellison are rooting for him.

“Change is really hard for people,” says Alberta de Jetley, 70, a vegetable farmer who supplies the new Nobu Lanai with cabbage and baby carrots. But, he says, “I really think the island is on the verge of just taking off.”

Many inhabitants of Lanai’s sole, rustic village seem to prize the simple life. Subsistence fishing. Hunting for mouflon sheep. Gardening bok choy in the ruddy dirt.

The locals and their sun-faded shanties might be a world away from the Four Seasons Lanai Resort, where there are private yachts and the beds are customizable by firmness. In fact, these two worlds are bridged by just seven miles of pavement.

The road, which has no traffic lights, is sheathed by tall pine trees shaped like rockets. The foliage is fitting, as the lifestyle on one end of the connecter is something like outer space to inhabitants of the other side.

For years, many travelers misidentified this beach as Manele Bay; those working at the new resort have been instructed to call it its proper, original name, Hulopoe Bay.
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Many in the temporary population of resort construction workers stay at the Four Seasons’ 102-room Lodge at Koele, an up-country retreat with archery and clay shooting that is next in line to get a facelift. Others are put up in vacant house and apartment rentals within Ellison’s enormous stake in housing. Some rent units from private homeowners.

In the throes of such a severe housing shortage, private landlords have been able to increase their rents. There is a waiting list for units within the third of residential properties owned by Ellison. As such, Bicoy’s search for affordable living quarters came up empty.

There are no visibly homeless people on Lanai. But there are those who are houseless. Families who can’t afford the going rate are routinely forced to pack into small cottages with friends or relatives.

“Money will change people,” Bicoy says. “I’m scared for this island. Things are changing so fast, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

Lilinoe Bicoy, 33, fourth generation Lanai resident, prepares her 3-year-old daughter's hair after packing a pick-up truck for the family's move.
Logan Mock-Bunting for Al Jazeera America

Bicoy rakes a hand through her youngest daughter Kazaiyah-Rose’s unbrushed tendrils as the last of her desirable home goods disappears down the road in a billow of dust. Nearby, her son, Jaxin-Haze, stands in the driveway distributing Tic Tacs.

“This is for your breath, Mom!” he beams.

Bicoy lets out a large laugh and takes a strawberry mint. It’s pink, a promotion for Valentine’s Day. By then, she and her son will be thousands of miles apart.

A fourth generation resident of this tiny Hawaiian island where everyone knows everyone’s name, Bicoy is desperately upbeat as she maps out the four months ahead.

Her husband, Rico Bicoy, 28, and Jaxin, will move into a friend’s garage. Two of her sons from a previous relationship will live with their father. Bicoy’s oldest boy will finish his freshman year of high school on the neighboring island of Molokai, where, she says, the teachers are better. She and 3-year-old Kazaiyah will get a head start on building a life in the suburbs of Denver, a place they have never been, full of things they have never seen, such as snow and rush hour traffic.

In Colorado, Bicoy will care for Kazaiyah, complete her online nursing program and search for housing to sleep seven. Denver is the destination because it’s where the construction company that employs Bicoy’s husband has its headquarters. In May, when school on the island lets out for summer vacation, the family will reunite in that foreign, mile-high land.

“I don’t want to move off this island,” says Bicoy, who is of Filipino and Native Hawaiian descent. “I was raised here. I like raising my kids here.”

But Bicoy asserts that the decision to leave Lanai was out of her hands.

“Lanai is changing, and I don’t see it changing for the better,” she says. “Yeah, he opened the theater and he opened the pool. That’s fine. He’s bringing life back to the island. But at the same time, he’s pushing all the local people out. Would you rather have a heated pool to swim in or a house?”

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