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Lahaina was expensive before the fire. Some worry rebuilding will price them out

New construction sits above where homes were destroyed by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
New construction sits above where homes were destroyed by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Jeremy DelosReyes' roots in the historic seaside town of Lahaina run deep. His family has been in Hawaii for seven generations, and until the devastating fire ripped through the town center Aug. 8, leaving a wasteland of ashes and twisted metal, he and his wife Grace lived next to DelosReyes' parents. Both homes were among the many destroyed.

So it's been upsetting that since the fire, three realtors have called DelosReyes to say: "Sorry for your loss. Would you be interested in selling your home?" He hung up on each.

"I'm terrified of us losing property to these land grabbers, to these speculators," he says.

Maui, and Hawaii in general, already had a severe housing shortagewhich the disaster has made worse. Now, many fear those left struggling in Lahaina will feel pressured to sell, allowing developers to cater more to the tourists and part-time residents that make up a significant share of the state's economy. The concerns have sparked a push to try and keep that from happening.

Jeremy DelosReyes and his wife Grace at a hotel condo where they're living temporarily after the Lahaina fire destroyed their house. Since the disaster three realtors have called to ask if he wants to sell his land.
Jennifer Ludden / NPR
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NPR
Jeremy DelosReyes and his wife Grace at a hotel condo where they're living temporarily after the Lahaina fire destroyed their house. Since the disaster three realtors have called to ask if he wants to sell his land.

Hawaii has the most expensive housing market in the country, and Native Hawaiians have borne the brunt of that

Lahaina land is valuable. DelosReyes lived in a house his parents bought in 1974. It didn't cost much then, but a worsening housing shortage has made Hawaii the most expensive market in the country. Last month, Governor Josh Green declared a state of emergencyon housing, noting that costs have tripled since the 1990's and most people can no longer afford a median priced home or condo.

"At my last appraisal, my house came in at, I believe, just under $800,000," says DelosReyes. "And that was three years ago."

As a high school teacher who works construction, he says he could never pay that. Many who can't afford to live on their own squeeze in with extended family.

Native Hawaiians have borne the brunt of this housing crunch. They make up a disproportionate share of Hawaii's homeless population, which is one of the highest per-capita in the country. And as the high cost of living leads more people to leave, census figures show at least half of Native Hawaiians now live outside Hawaii.

In fact, Native Hawaiians say losing their land has been a trauma stretching back more than a century, to when the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom.

"There was a huge land grab that displaced many Hawaiian families, and we suffer from that today. It's generational," says Native Hawaiian activist Kekai Keahi.

He says the fire this month 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 were left untouched. "They just continue on with their life and we're stuck in this, and we're worried about if we're going to make it through," Keahi says.

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, "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.'"

New construction is always more expensive than older buildings, she says. So local residents often do get priced out during rebuilding after an extreme weather disaster. And Van Zandt says a historic and cultural site like Lahaina is especially attractive to developers.

"You don't expect it to ever become available," she says. "And so it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for them, frankly."

Looking for ways to keep Lahaina affordable

A fence is constructed around the homes burned by the fires in Lahaina.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A fence is constructed around the homes burned by the fires in Lahaina.

Native Hawaiian activist Keahi and others have advocated for a seat at the table in deciding how to rebuild in a way that doesn't push out those who call Lahaina home. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has said repeatedly that he's committed to protecting Lahaina for its residents.

"The land in Lahaina is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild," he said at a recent press conference. "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."

Green's office did not respond to a request for more information on how, exactly, that would work.

Green also says the state may consider buying land on which to build affordable housing. Some reacted to that with distrust, and the governor quickly explainedthe goal was to protect the land for people, not to take it from them.

Disaster recovery expert Van Zandt considers it a promising solution. So-called community land trusts can block higher-end development and keep housing affordable in perpetuity.

The disaster has also moved one developer to action.

Amanda Vierra (center) with her boyfriend, son, and mother, the first time she saw her mom after the fire. Vierra lived in Lahaina with her boyfriend, whose family lost three homes, including one of the oldest in the town. None were insured.
/ Amanda Vierra
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Amanda Vierra
Amanda Vierra (center) with her boyfriend, son, and mother, the first time she saw her mom after the fire. Vierra lived in Lahaina with her boyfriend, whose family lost three homes, including one of the oldest in the town. None were insured.

At the Maui County Council's first meeting after the fire, housing developer Paul Cheng noted that a major projectnear Lahaina had just broken ground. It was supposed to be a mix of market-rate and affordable units, he told the council. But "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."

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 of them insured. Her sister-in-law has already left the state.

"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," Vierra says. "I don't think I could leave Lahaina, but it would be easier, honestly."

Jeremy DelosReyes has been tempted, too. Life is such a struggle now, he says, and his wife has relatives who own property in Texas. But despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, he insists he can't imagine leaving a place where his ties run so deep.

"I know in my heart I'm going to die in Lahaina," he says. "So I'm going to be here. I'm not going to sell anything."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.