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Maui's fire is already impacting the availability of affordable housing in the area

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Maui, the devastating fire in the seaside town of Lahaina has brought fears of a land grab. Hawaii already had a severe housing shortage, and the disaster made it worse. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, there's a push to make sure that rebuilding Lahaina doesn't drive out those who call it home.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In the parking lot of a resort hotel, Jeremy Delos Reyes piles his construction tools in a pickup truck after he and his wife's house burned down. These tools and their three dogs are about all they have left. They're staying at this hotel temporarily. The sites where Delos Reyes had construction work are also gone, so he's been offering pro bono repairs.

JEREMY DELOS REYES: I can't do anything. And if I stay home, I just go crazy.

LUDDEN: Delos Reyes says his family has been in Hawaii for seven generations. Since the fire, three realtors have called. Sorry for your loss, they say. Would you be interested in selling your home? He hangs up.

DELOS REYES: I'm terrified of us losing property to these land grabbers, to these speculators.

LUDDEN: Lahaina land is valuable. Delos Reyes lived in a house his parents bought in 1974. It wasn't much then, but a worsening housing shortage has made Hawaii the most expensive market in the country.

DELOS REYES: So at my last appraisal, my house came in at, I believe, just under 800,000. And that was three years ago.

LUDDEN: As a high school teacher who works construction, he says he could never pay that. Many here can't afford their own house and squeeze in with extended family. Native Hawaiians have borne the brunt of this housing crunch. In fact, losing their land has been a trauma stretching back more than a century to when the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, says Native rights activist Kekai Keahi.

KEKAI KEAHI: There was a huge land grab that displaced many Hawaiian families, and we suffer from that today. It's generational.

LUDDEN: He says the fires seemed designed to stoke that tension. Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Most who lost homes, he says, were middle and low income. Nearby vacation rentals and tourist resorts are untouched.

KEAHI: They just continue on with their life. And we're stuck in this, and we're worrying about if we're going to make it through.

LUDDEN: That worry is well-founded. Shannon Van Zandt studies disaster recovery at Texas A&M University. As soon as she saw those wrenching photos of Lahaina's destruction...

SHANNON VAN ZANDT: I immediately thought, oh, this is never going to be the same. They're never going to be able to bring back what they had.

LUDDEN: She says rebuilding after an extreme weather disaster is expensive. People get priced out. And a historic and cultural site like this - it's especially attractive to developers.

VAN ZANDT: You don't expect it to ever become available. And so it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, frankly.

LUDDEN: Native Hawaiian activist Keahi and others have pushed for a seat at the table in deciding how to rebuild. Hawaii Governor Josh Green says he gets it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH GREEN: The land in Lahaina is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild. And I have instructed the attorney general to impose enhanced criminal penalties on anyone who tries to take advantage of victims by acquiring property in the affected areas.

LUDDEN: Green says the state may consider buying land for affordable housing. That was met with distrust, though, and he quickly explained the goal was to protect the land for people, not take it from them. At the Maui County Council's first meeting after the fire, housing developer Paul Cheng also had an announcement. A major project near Lahaina that just broke ground was supposed to be a mix of market rate and affordable units, but...

PAUL CHENG: Because of the tragedy, I'm totally willing to give up the market-rate units and work with the county and state to make it all affordable so that, you know, we can do this.

LUDDEN: Still, rebuilding takes years. Many don't know where they can afford to stay and get by financially for that long. Amanda Vierra lived with her boyfriend, whose family lost three homes, none insured. Her sister-in-law's already left.

AMANDA VIERRA: It's her and her two kids, and she's moving to Washington because she's just frustrated, and she couldn't find a place. And, I mean, I understand, but I don't think I could leave Lahaina. But it would be easier, honestly.

LUDDEN: Jeremy Delos Reyes has been tempted, too. Life is such a struggle now, he says, and his wife has relatives in Texas, but he just can't.

DELOS REYES: I know in my heart I'm going to die in Lahaina, so I'm going to be here - not going to sell anything.

LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.