KAHULUI, Hawaii − Tammy Kaililaau’s home of 20 years burned to the ground. People she knows burned in the fire, too.
Less than a week later, she said, she got a Facebook message from someone in real estate. Residents have been warning one another on social media that developers may try to buy their land, so Kaililaau ignored it.
“Why are they doing that? You know, people burned in the fire,” she said Monday.
“It’s hard. It’s rough, really rough.”
Many Maui residents are mourning the loss of their homes and pledging to stay put after the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in more than a century destroyed neighborhoods across the island. They said they are worried that if insurance payouts and government assistance don’t come fast enough, survivors may lose hope and sell to people who will drastically change their beloved but rapidly gentrifying community. In the days since the fires struck, developers have reached out about acquiring the land islanders and their families have lived on for years, if not generations.
Will some property sales in Hawaii be banned after fires?
John Dimuro, who has lived on the island for more than 40 years and works for Marriott in West Maui, said locals don’t want big companies or wealthy people buying up land and developing it.
“The government should just say ‘No, you’re not allowed to develop,'” he said. “Say no, just flat-out no.”
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said he has reached out to the state’s attorney general to explore the possibility of imposing a moratorium on sales of damaged or destroyed properties. Green said the fires destroyed more than 2,200 structures, 86% of which are residential.
“Moreover, I would caution people that it’s going to be a very long time before any growth or housing will be built,” he said. “You will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here.”
The governor’s words don’t seem to have deterred developers, locals say.
Mark Stefl, 67, said he, too, has been approached by developers, and the offer felt like being kicked while he was down. On Monday, Stefl had just tried and failed to get a document from the county that would let him pass the roadblocks and return to Lahaina, the centuries-old former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The town of about 13,000 people was largely destroyed by flames last week.
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on. Our government is so inept right now,” he said. “I’m so pissed off.”
He and his wife have lost their jobs, and he worries that he’ll still have to make mortgage payments on the destroyed property and that he won’t get federal assistance because he has insurance. Still, he said, he has to rebuild. In the 24 years he has lived in the area, he has had two other homes burn, including once during a hurricane. Each time he has rebuilt.
“I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I love it here, as messed up as it is.”
How much does it cost to live in Maui?
Even before the blazes wiped out hundreds of homes in Maui, Hawaii was going through an affordable housing crisis fueled by international demand from people buying second and third homes to vacation in or use for short-term rentals, said Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the workforce housing shortage in the state.
Higa said it’s incredibly expensive and difficult to develop new housing in Hawaii, which drives up the prices beyond the budgets of local families, many of whom work low-paying service jobs in the hospitality or tourism industry.
The median price of a Maui home has soared to roughly $1.2 million, and the median condo price is $850,000. The area, where about 65% of residents are people of color, has a median annual household income of about $88,000, according to U.S. census figures.
Some residents who have insurance will be able to receive compensation. But Higa said many of the homes in Lahaina were old and not up to code, which made them “difficult to impossible to insure.”
Higa said some residents will be eligible for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “but that process is not perfect, and it’s possible that some people may fall through the cracks.”
“The real danger is all of this compensation to rebuild, if it comes at a later time, doesn’t necessarily cover the interim cost of rent,” he said. “And Maui already was an island where rents were sky-high, so for families who are waiting to rebuild, they have a tough time ahead.”
Kaililaau, 65, who lost her home of 20 years, was stuck in Lahaina for two days without food after the fires swept through. Now she can’t get back and has been living in a three-bedroom house with 10 other people, including her daughter and granddaughter. She said they’ve been able to get some supplies and are grateful for the influx of donations, “but the point is, we’re homeless. We have no place to go.”
‘This is not for sale’
Higa said government, grassroots and nonprofit organizations must come together to ensure displaced families can find affordable housing and aren’t intimidated by the process of accessing government aid. He said he hopes there is enough assistance and housing that people won’t feel the pressure to sell.
“Many of us are concerned that in the immediate wake of a disaster, people are not always in the right state of mind to make such a consequential decision,” he said.
Jonah Lion, 45, said that if residents do sell their property, a “whole different type of rebuilding” would likely happen on prime beachfront properties. Lion, who operates an ecocultural tourism company, said that in the five years he has lived in Maui, he has witnessed the tension tourism can cause between visitors and locals.
Lion, who is now volunteering at a supply depot run out of an abandoned restaurant near Maalaea Harbor, said developers have been offering people money to move for years. Ultimately, he believes, those in multigenerational homes will have the strength to stay.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you offer,” he said. “No. We’re not selling. This is not for sale.”
Contributing: The Associated Press