Maui ‘is not for sale: Survivors say developers want to buy land where their homes once stood

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 each other 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,” she added.

Maui ‘is not for sale: Survivors say developers want to buy land where their homes once stood

Many Maui residents are mourning the loss of their homes and adamantly pledging to stay put after the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history in more than a century destroyed neighborhoods across the island. They said they are worried 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 began, developers have reached out about acquiring the land they and their families have lived on for years if not generations.

Tammy Kaililaau, left, Joncy Kaililaau, center and Ohi Kaililaau stopped at a placard distribution site outside Lahaina, Maui on Monday, August 14, 2023. The family was stuck in Lahaina for two days after the wildfire destroyed their home and now they cannot re-enter to search for belongings because of official roadblocks.

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 individuals buying up land and developing it.

Maui ‘is not for sale: Survivors say developers want to buy land where their homes once stood

“The government should just say ‘no, you’re not allowed to develop,'” he said Monday. “Say no, just flat out no.”

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said he’s 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 yet, according to locals.

Maui ‘is not for sale: Survivors say developers want to buy land where their homes once stood

Mark Stefl, 67, said he, too, has been approached by developers and the offer felt like being hit 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 get back into Lahaina, the centuries-old former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The town of about 13,000 people was nearly 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.”

Lahaina resident Mark Stefl, 67, expresses frustration about not receiving a placard to enter West Maui. Stefl, who lost his home in the wildfire, has not returned to Lahaina since the blaze due to roadblocks.

He and his wife have lost their jobs, and he’s worried 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’s lived in the area, he’s had two other homes burn, including once during a hurricane. Each time he’s rebuilt.

“I’m not gonna 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?

Maui ‘is not for sale: Survivors say developers want to buy land where their homes once stood

Even before the blazes wiped out hundreds of homes in Maui, the state 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, according to 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 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, making them “difficult to impossible to insure.”

Higa said some residents will be eligible for federal assistance through FEMA, “but that process is not perfect, and some people may fall through the cracks.”

FEMA is set up outside of War Memorial Gymnasium, a makeshift shelter for displaced residents, in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Aug. 14.

“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, who lost her home of 20 years, was stuck in Lahaina for two days without food after the fires first started. Now the 65-year-old can’t get back and has been living in a 3-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 walks through the supply hub at an abandoned restaurant in Maalaea Harbor. A former firefighter, Lion has used his knowledge to assist in aid efforts for those affected by the wildfire in Lahaina.

Jonah Lion, 45, said if residents do sell their property a “whole different type of rebuilding” would likely happen on the prime, beachfront properties. Lion, who operates an ecocultural tourism company, said in the five years he’s lived in Maui, he’s 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.”

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