Housing solutions after the fire in Maui are not easy or obvious

The recovery effort from the Lahaina fires reached a month mark on Friday, and is now at what Gov. Josh Green calls a pivotal point in providing long-term housing to several thousand displaced people so they can rebuild or replace what they have lost.

What this means for Maui’s housing market remains somewhat uncertain. But this could include converting short-term vacation rentals into housing for the local workforce, and building low-cost modular homes as well as tiny home villages known as kohali. The shift could also accelerate the development of long-planned subdivisions and possibly new residential projects — all outside of Lahaina or on the undeveloped outskirts of West Maui that was nearly obliterated on Aug. 8.

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

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

The pivot toward long-term, but temporary, housing for those displaced by the fire could involve FEMA leasing multi-unit properties, such as timeshare complexes, and making them available to people from Lahaina, over the next 18 years. 24 months.

FEMA could also be involved in building new homes, said Bob Fenton, the agency’s regional director.

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

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

Removing hazardous materials from the burned property is estimated to take three to four months, with debris removal expected to take the better part of a year, Green said. This means Lahaina property owners won’t be able to start rebuilding for more than a year, and for some it could take much longer.



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

Nannie Medeiros, the state’s top housing official, who announced plans to resign Thursday, told the Maui County Council’s Housing and Land Use Committee on Aug. 30 that since the fire, state officials have identified 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 of land are being considered in West Maui, and two or three private parcels of land that are not in West Maui.

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

But again, the challenges are great in part because many people oppose shortcuts to regulatory reviews to protect the environment, historic properties and cultural resources.

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


The decline accelerated

Such projects are part of a statewide strategy Green created in July before the fire disaster under Hawaii’s housing emergency declaration.

Under the announcement, Green created a 36-member “working group” that could determine whether developers who apply can use a variety of customized alternative regulatory procedures intended to provide faster approvals for things involving land use, zoning, environmental reviews and historic protections.

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

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

Meanwhile, another effort to provide long-term temporary housing for fire survivors is urging owners of short-term vacation rental units to rent their properties to people who lost their homes in Lahaina.

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

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

FEMA is paying rent for many of the families displaced by the fire, an average of $3,500 a month, according to Fenton. This assistance is usually limited to 18 months.

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