Apr 24, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Why my family's not going to Maui

A sign stating "Let Lahaina Heal" is seen on the side of the highway in Kanapali, Hawai'i.

A sign stating "Let Lahaina Heal" is seen on the side of the highway in Kanapali, Hawai'i. Photo: Marco Garcia/AP

Sara Kehaulani Goo, executive editor of Axios Live, is part Native Hawaiian and her family is from Maui. She writes:

This summer, I'm taking my husband and kids back to our family roots in Hawai'i. But we won't be visiting the island of Maui.

Why it matters: If we visited Maui, we'd need a place to stay — most likely a condo or home rental for our family of five. But Maui needs all its housing for locals, not visitors like me.

  • The Maui wildfires in August killed 101 people and destroyed homes for more than 6,000 residents, most of whom still haven't resettled somewhere permanent.
  • Officials now have made progress clearing debris from the charred ruins of homes and storefronts.

The critical lack of affordable housing — which many U.S. communities experience — is exacerbated in Hawai'i, where local people compete with the world's billionaires, who are gobbling up acreage.

  • Since the fire, the median home price on Maui has increased to $1.3 million and the average resident who works at the hotel or local school can't come anywhere close to affording that.

Reality check: There's plenty of housing on Maui. It's just mostly owned by people who don't live there. And it's being rented out to vacationers who can afford the $500/night prices.

  • More than 1,500 people whose homes were burned down have left Maui for lack of housing, according to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.
  • Local residents have set up a large array of tents on the beach, where they post signs demanding housing assistance.
  • Many others are couch surfing or doubling up with relatives or friends, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. They're beyond their breaking point.

What they're saying: "You're pushing out an entire community of service industry people. So no one's going to be able to support the tourism that you're putting ahead of your community," Lahaina resident Amy Chadwick told the Associated Press.

  • Chadwick lost her house in the wildfires. That heartache was followed by sticker shock: She could not find a place to rent for less than $10,000 a month. She now lives in Florida.

Local officials are trying to incentivize Maui homeowners with tax breaks to rent their homes to local people instead of short-term rentals to tourists, but there's little evidence that's working.

  • Gov. Josh Green's frustration was on display, according to AP. "This fire uncovered a clear truth, which is we have too many short-term rentals owned by too many individuals on the mainland and it is b***t," Green said at a recent press conference. "And our people deserve housing, here."

The bottom line: Maui still needs tourism to keep its local economy strong. Hotels are eager to bring back guests and workers need the hours, as many hotels have been experiencing lower occupancy rates than before the fires hit.

  • But as much as I'd love to visit my aunties, uncles and cousins — some of whom saw the flames get dangerously close to their house — I can't stomach using a short-term rental right now.
  • I can't in good conscience be taking up space that should go to a working family on Maui who desperately needs shelter.
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