Post-fire housing solutions on Maui not easy or clear

FILE - destroyed homes are visible in the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday, Sept. 11, that there have been 23 weather extreme events in America that cost at least $1 billion this year through August, eclipsing the year-long record total of 22 set in 2020. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Lahaina fire recovery efforts hit their one-month mark Friday, and are now at what Gov. Josh Green calls a pivot point to provide longer-term housing for several thousand displaced people until they can rebuild or replace what they lost.

What this means for Maui’s housing market is still fairly uncertain. But it could involve converting short-term vacation rentals into local workforce housing, and building lower-cost modular homes as well as tiny-home villages known as kauhale. The shift also could accelerate development of long-planned subdivisions and perhaps new residential projects—all outside Lahaina or on undeveloped outskirts of the West Maui town that were nearly obliterated Aug. 8.


Green said Thursday — during a state-led Maui wildfire recovery webinar focused on housing — that 7,000 people displaced by the fire need longer-term housing.

About 6,000 of the 7,000 are in noncongregate shelters, mainly hotel rooms on Maui, according to the American Red Cross.

The pivot to longer-term, yet still interim, housing for people displaced by the fire could include the Federal Emergency Management Agency leasing multi-unit properties, such as timeshare complexes, and making them available to people from Lahaina, over the next 18 to 24 months.

Bob Fenton, a regional administrator for the agency, also said FEMA could get involved in building new homes as well.

Green said the state is looking at housing it can build or help build, perhaps 18 months from now or sooner in 2024. He emphasized that all such work is part of transitional assistance for fire victims.

“That’s kind of transitional, like a bridge to the future,” he said. “It is not about rebuilding Lahaina.”

Green has said that removing hazardous material from burned properties is estimated to take three to four months, and is to be followed by debris removal expected to take the better part of a year. That means property owners in Lahaina won’t be able to begin rebuilding for over a year, and it could take considerably longer for some.


Ramping up

No details have been publicly shared about how many homes might be added on Maui, or where, as part of this longer-term transitional housing effort.

Nani Medeiros, the state’s chief housing officer, who announced resignation plans Thursday, told the Maui County Council Housing and Land Use Committee on Aug. 30 that, since the fire, state officials have been identifying private and government land on Maui outside Lahaina that could be used for new housing.

Medeiros told the committee that three or four government-owned parcels in West Maui, and two or three private parcels not in West Maui, are being looked at.

Another avenue being explored is to accelerate long-planned subdivision development on the island.

But again, challenges are significant in part because many people oppose shortcuts to regulatory reviews for protecting the environment, historic property and cultural resources.

Medeiros told the council committee that about 11,000 planned homes at 10 projects are in the development pipeline on Maui and that accelerating some could result in new homes being delivered as early as January.


Pushback accelerating

Such projects are part of a statewide strategy created in July by Green before the fire disaster under a proclamation declaring a housing emergency in Hawaii.

Under the proclamation, Green established a 36-member “working group” that can determine whether developers who apply may use a variety of ad hoc alternate regulatory procedures aimed at providing quicker approvals on things involving land use, zoning, environmental reviews and historic protection.

No new housing construction projects have been considered yet by the Build Beyond Barriers Working Group, but two lawsuits have been filed to stop the group while many residents, including some who survived the Lahaina fire, oppose the initiative.

The departure of Medeiros — who guided the working group and had the authority to grant permission for state or county housing projects to proceed under the special rules — raises questions about the future of Green’s initiative. The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 26.

Meanwhile, another effort to provide interim longer-term housing for fire survivors urges owners of short-term vacation rental units to rent their property to people who lost homes in Lahaina.

According to a June University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization report, there are 9,990 active short-term vacation rentals in Maui County, representing 14% of the county’s housing stock.

Green acknowledged on the Thursday webinar that vacation rental unit owners would be giving up much higher rental income if they rent long-term to residents, but he asked for such help given the great need.

FEMA is paying rent for many households displaced by the fire, at an average of $3,500 a month, according to Fenton. Such assistance is typically limited to 18 months.

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