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 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 that focused on housing that 7,000 people displaced by the fire need long-term housing.
“All hands will be on deck to do that,” he said.
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.
“Hotel rooms are great and a safe place to be, but having a kitchen, a full house and more space to cook your own meals is very important,” Irene McCann, director of government relations for the Red Cross’ disaster division, said in the webinar. .
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.
This scoping work has included meetings in recent weeks with county officials, community stakeholders, developers and members of the construction industry to determine “where we can do what,” Medeiros told the committee.
Medeiros said infrastructure represents the biggest challenge to developing homes in the identified sites, which she did not describe further. She could not be reached for further information, and the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Affairs did not respond to a request for information about the prospects for the new housing development.
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.
Of the 10 projects, two are under construction in Central Maui. One such project is the long-term Maui Lani project, which already has more than 1,400 homes and is master planned for about 3,700 homes. The other is Wailuku Apartments which has about 300 units.
The other eight projects are in the planning or design stage, and may face obstacles to relatively rapid development due to financing and organizational problems.
Three of these eight projects — Pulilohua, the Honokwai Homestead Community and Lily Villages — are located on West Maui.
Pulelehua was originally proposed by Maui Land & Pineapple Co. in 2004 as a 900-home expansion of the Kapalua Resort with half of the homes priced for low- to moderate-income residents.
However, Maui Land ran into financial troubles and sold the 304-acre project site in 2016 to another developer, which later obtained state and county approvals to reduce the number of affordable homes and expand the project to include up to 1,200 residences.
The Honokowai Homestead is a project of the Hawaii State Department of Homestead Lands and is slated to include approximately 900 homes for beneficiaries.
Leali’i is a massive government project dating back to at least 1990 that is expected to include approximately 3,000 to 4,000 homes on 1,128 acres above the developed parts of Lahaina. According to the list referred to by Medeiros, there are about 300 homes in the planning or design stage.
Accelerating such projects is part of a statewide strategy Green created in July before the fire disaster under a Hawaii 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.
“This is nonsense,” Leonard Nakoa, a Maui plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, told the council committee. “This is full of crap.”
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.
Medeiros made a similar appeal during a council committee meeting. “One of the most important things people can do — (people) who own a second, third or fourth home — is giving that to the community now so someone can live there for the next year or two,” she said. “It doesn’t create a new burden on infrastructure. It makes sense and helps your community.”
Half of Lahaina’s former homes were occupied by renters paying an estimated $1,700 a month in rent, according to an analysis by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism using U.S. Census Bureau data.
Statewide, available rental housing on Craigslist was highest on Maui, where the average monthly asking rent was $2,500, meaning half of the listings were for more and half for less, UHERO said in its June housing report. The statewide average was about $2,000, UHERO said.
FEMA is paying rent for many of the families displaced by the fire, an average of $3,500 a month, according to Fenton, who said the amount varies depending on the amount of homes lost. This assistance is usually limited to 18 months. In the long term, it may be difficult for many fire survivors to find affordable housing.
According to the Hawaiian Housing Finance and Development Corporation, approximately 550 affordable housing units were lost to the fire.
HHFDC, a state agency, is helping meet the transitional housing needs of fire survivors by hosting an online list of homeowners willing to rent homes to people displaced from Lahaina.
Hawaii’s fire relief housing program has led to about 180 fire victims finding rental housing, although some is short-term. Under the program, tenants pay their landlords directly, although many use insurance or aid proceeds to pay rent that can be at market rate.
One way to provide low-cost housing for long-term temporary use is to develop clusters of tiny homes, or kohali, according to Green. There are also plans to import model homes that can be used for the same purpose.
Despite efforts to find more traditional long-term housing, Green said Friday that hotels are expected to be used as part of long-term recovery efforts. He said the state plans to lease three to five hotels for long-term use as part of a “housing safety net,” though he also said hotels cannot be a long-term solution for housing on West Maui.