Billionaire Ellison turning Hawaii’s Lanai into “playground for the rich”

Locals struggle to find housing as Ellison’s control runs unchecked

Larry Ellison and Hawaii's Lanai island (Oracle PR Hartmann Studios, CC BY 2.0/via Wikimedia Commons, iStock)

A billionaire’s presence on a Hawaiian island is pushing out longtime residents.

Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle and the world’s 11th-richest person, bought 98 percent of Lanai in 2012 for $300 million, Bloomberg reported. The purchase of the 90,000-acre island came with the two Four Seasons resorts that provide jobs and homes for most of the island’s population, making Ellison a landlord or boss for most residents – and both for some.

Ellison owns the island’s main grocery store, the only gas station, the community newspaper and the only non-Four Seasons hotel. His development plans tend to be secret. Many locals have heard that he plans to make the island “sustainable,” though not how.

Residents say that no other entity can balance Ellison’s control, meaning his decisions carry the weight of the law, with minimal discussions of new projects and almost no due process. After the pandemic hit and Ellison moved to Lanai full time, the island became a popular destination for yachts and private jets and attracted big-name guests such as Elon Musk, Tom Cruise and former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu.

All that has brought economic pain to woodworker Chris Andrus, whom Ellison hired to help build a Nobu restaurant. Shortly after hiring Lanai Woodworkers, Ellison told the company’s owner to either leave or sell the business. He sold to Ellison – leaving Andrus out of work.

While Andrus says Ellison, who has since bought dozens more homes and businesses on Lanie, “has the right to do whatever the hell he wants with what he owns,” the control he has leaves residents with little power to influence infrastructure on the island.

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Those who support Ellison, who has a net worth of about $90 billion, say he has done more for the island than its previous owner, fruit and vegetable magnate David Murdock, who has about $2 billion.

“He’s amazing,” said Gail Allen, who owns a gift shop in town and manages rental properties for Ellison’s visiting employees. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, please.”

The housing shortage on Lanai is extreme. As of early June, only one home on the island was for sale, listed for $7.9 million. While the median household income for Lanai is $59,000, richer residents are beginning to skew that higher. Locals whose families have lived on the island for generations are being forced out as more and more of Ellison’s employees move in.

Ellison promised Lanai that he would build a 150-unit housing development that would include homes for purchase. Pulama later changed its plans and announced the units would all be rentals instead.

[BB] — Victoria Pruitt