‘There is no healing:’ Thousands of families plead for action on housing 3 months after Maui wildfires
Alfonso Basurto watched the house that housed his family of seven burn to the ground in the Aug. 8 Maui wildfires.
He rushed to the property to check if some of his children, aged between 14 and 21, were there – driving through thick smoke and under downed power lines to reach them.
He did not see their truck in the driveway, which meant they were not there and evacuated safely. The relief operation gave Basurto a moment to inspect the small fires burning in the grass, the fence surrounding the property engulfed in flames, and the structure of their home engulfed in flames.
“I say, ‘Alfie, if you stay here, part of the ceiling will fly off, it will knock you down and then it will all be over. Get back in the car and get out of here.” Basurto remembers himself thinking at the time. “This is what I did.”
Their five-bedroom home is located along busy, tourist-heavy Front Street in Lahaina.
Now, he and the rest of his family live in a four-bedroom house, paying $9,000 a month, which he said is double what they paid before the fire for a larger home. The fire destroyed his three companies.
Barsotto and his family are one of thousands struggling to stabilize three months after the tragedy, on an island already marred by high housing and living costs.
State Attorney General Anne Lopez is investigating dozens of reports of rent hikes and evictions in the wake of the tragedy, while Hawaii Gov. Josh Green implements his eighth emergency declaration to place restrictions on price gouging of necessities, including rent, food and water.
Maui County officials said more than 2,200 buildings were completely burned in the fire. More than 7,000 people were left in need of shelter after the bushfires.
State Representative and Housing Commission member Troy Hasimoto told ABC News that the majority of what was destroyed that day was affordable housing for “local working-class residents.”
He added that the more expensive homes were practically untouched.
He added that more than 500 of those families were homeowners, but the vast majority of people affected were renters living in multi-generational or multiple-family households.
Governor Green warned that waiting up to two years before property owners can begin rebuilding their homes will exacerbate the island’s already severe housing crisis.
Hawaii residents experience the highest housing costs in the country — 2.5 times higher than the national average — according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
The median sales price for a single-family home on Maui is currently $1,269,025, up 18% from this time last year, according to the Maui Association of Realtors. Condominiums have a median sales price of $835,000, up 4%.
The median income is $88,249, according to the U.S. Census.
Emergency housing is coming to an end, and officials are encouraging residents to find housing and take advantage of rental assistance options as hotels and short-term rentals hope to bring tourists back to the tourism-dependent community.
“People in shelters will not be able to move out of the shelter — facing an unrealistic rental market,” Basurto said.
But with some people juggling mortgage and rent, and others also dealing with unemployment — both residents and local lawmakers are looking for solutions to build Lahaina back better and bring people back home.
“I’m not recovering,” said Justin Ablay, a Lahaina resident whose family has lived there for 10 generations. “I won’t be able to heal until I get home. … There’s no healing here now and we’re struggling.”
Community sticks together
Efforts to build free short-term housing for those who have been displaced are beginning to emerge around West Maui — with local residents offering their services and special skills to make displaced residents more comfortable.
Basurto, who owns more than two acres of land and wants to donate it, is working on plans to fill his plot of land with rent-free, mid-term housing that families can stay in for up to two years.
“When things get bad, everyone needs to help in any way they can,” Basurto said. “I thought the biggest impact we could make was to donate our land to create homes.”
They will be geodesic domes, and they have already begun building them as temporary structures for donation centers and areas to serve as a safe haven against environmental challenges within the cremation zone.
The buildings to be built for housing will be semi-permanent structures built to last 20 years or more, according to Basurto.
For those who are now homeless or displaced, and who have not found shelter in temporary housing, Basurto and his team at Rebuild Maui will provide a shared space for the community to gather and pitch their tents “for however long our journey takes.” community for real housing solutions.”
Atom Kasprzycki, who owns an architecture firm with his wife, Jennifer, helps families develop building plans for future rebuilding efforts at no cost, as well as assisting in the permitting process to get their plans approved.
Residents interested in the program will be grouped based on their needs and desires, and given group designs that can later be customized. Kasprzycki hopes this will simplify and improve the process — and his nearly 25 years of experience with zoning laws and lot types will help facilitate that transition.
“Most people were underinsured, and when you look at the money they would have to build their homes and the current construction costs — there’s definitely a gap there,” Kasprzycki said in an interview. “There is therefore a need for inexpensive construction and rebuilding of these homes at the lowest possible cost.”
Abilai, who has lived in Lahaina all his life and whose grandparents lived in his home before him, is one of the residents receiving these services.
He said the local Lahaina community gave him hope — something that was difficult to achieve with all the issues surrounding housing, finance, rebuilding and more plaguing the Hawaiian region.
“It’s a close-knit community, and this tragedy showed how much the community cares about each other,” Abilay said.
“It’s very difficult for everyone to stay there when housing is so limited, rents are so limited. There’s a lot of red tape, just trying to host people and these things seem to try to separate our community from the community,” he continued. The community is still strong.”
Housing policy as a path forward
Policymakers are scrambling to find solutions, especially when previous housing policies have failed.
In Lahaina, 25% of housing units are listed as short-term rentals, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. In South Lahaina, that percentage jumps to 41.8%. In the north, it reaches 87%.
The Hawaii State Legislature’s Housing Committee, led by state Reps. Hasimoto and Micah Aio, said incentivizing short-term rental owners to convert their properties to long-term rentals is one of their first lines of action.
“We have a huge inventory of housing in West Maui, and it’s just that a lot of it is short-term rentals,” Hashimoto said. “So, we’re trying to figure out how to incentivize those short-term rentals to become long-term for at least the next couple of years so we can bring these tax credit projects online.”
The low-income housing tax credit program has drawn praise from lawmakers. The financing tool allows private developers and nonprofits to build affordable rental units and receive tax credits representing a dollar-for-dollar reduction in income tax liabilities.
Housing commission leaders told ABC News that there are 1,000 affordable housing units in the pipeline in West Maui. However, lawmakers now need to figure out how to quickly make these units a reality.
“Now it’s just a matter of how we get this construction done within a time when there will be tremendous pressure within the construction industry due to the rebuilding, because these are technically new units,” Hashimoto said.
Addressing pitfalls in housing operations — building code red tape and allowing property owners to build more than one building on their land — is at the top of their agenda, Ayu and Hashimoto said.
While residents wait for these efforts to take effect, they say they are waiting for answers.
“We felt like it was…we were getting a lot of silent treatment,” Abilay said.
He continued: “We need federal funding. We need bigger federal agents, more federal financial support, to support people with their housing needs, with food insecurity, and clearing this debris as quickly as possible. That’s what we need from our help.” At the county, state and federal levels.”