Lahaina Residents Fear Rebuild Will Shut Them Out

The median price of a Maui house already is $1.2 million
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 13, 2023 12:05 PM CDT
Lahaina Residents Could Be Priced Out After Rebuild
Richy Palalay, who was born and raised in the Hawaii town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, shows his "Lahaina Grown" tattoo at an evacuation shelter in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Saturday.   (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

Richy Palalay so closely identifies with his Maui hometown that he had a tattoo artist permanently ink "Lahaina Grown" on his forearms when he was 16. But a chronic housing shortage and an influx of second-home buyers and wealthy transplants have been displacing residents like Palalay who give Lahaina its spirit and identity. Now, the wildfire that incinerated much of the compact coastal settlement has multiplied concerns that homes rebuilt there will be targeted at affluent outsiders seeking a tropical haven, the AP reports. That would turbo-charge what is already one of Hawaii's gravest and biggest challenges: the exodus and displacement of Native Hawaiian and local-born residents who can no longer afford to live in their homeland.

"I'm more concerned of big land developers coming in and seeing this charred land as an opportunity to rebuild," Palalay said Saturday at a shelter. Hotels and condos "that we can't afford, that we can't afford to live in—that's what we're afraid of," he said. Palalay, 25, started working at an oceanfront seafood restaurant when he was 16 and worked his way up to kitchen supervisor. He was training to be a sous chef. The blaze torched Palalay's restaurant, his neighborhood, his friends' homes, and possibly the house where he rents a room for $1,000 a month. He and his housemates haven't had an opportunity to return to examine it themselves, though they've seen images of the neighborhood in ruins.

The median price of a Maui home is $1.2 million, putting a single-family home out of reach for the typical wage earner; the median condo price is $850,000. Sterling Higa of Housing Hawaii's Future, a nonprofit that advocates for more housing, said the town is host to many houses that have been in the hands of local families for generations. But it's also been subject to gentrification. "So a lot of more recent arrivals—typically from the American mainland who have more money and can buy homes at a higher price—were to some extent displacing local families in Lahaina," Higa said. It's a phenomenon he has seen all along Maui's west coast, where a modest starter home two decades ago now sells for $1 million.

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Residents with insurance or government aid may get money to rebuild, but those payouts could take years, and recipients may find it won't be enough to cover housing in the interim. Many people could leave. "I don't have any money to help rebuild. I'll put on a construction hat and help get this ship going," Palalay said. "I'm not going to leave this place." Gov. Josh Green told journalists that he won't let Lahaina get too expensive for locals. He said he is thinking about ways for the state to acquire land to use for workforce housing or open space as a memorial for those lost. "We want Lahaina to be a part of Hawaii forever," Green said. "We don't want it to be another example of people being priced out of paradise." (The death toll has climbed as the search has widened.)

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