An aerial view shows the historic Banyan Tree along with destroyed homes, boats, and buildings burned to the ground in the historic Lahaina town in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
The wildfires that destroyed Lahaina last week exacerbated a housing crisis in Hawaii.Many Native Hawaiians and locals can’t buy a home in Maui, where the average cost is $1 million.These residents worry about being priced out of paradise as Lahaina eventually rebuilds.This article is part of Insider’s weekly newsletter on sustainability. Sign up here.
A week after wildfires destroyed the historic beach town of Lahaina, a long recovery process is underway as thousands of displaced Maui residents stay in temporary shelters, hotel rooms, and rental homes for the foreseeable future.
Officials said the blazes burned some 3,000 structures and killed at least 106 people, making it the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century. While getting relief to survivors and searching for victims are the immediate focus, the community is also raising concerns about how Lahaina will be rebuilt to avoid exacerbating what was already a housing crisis on the island.
Even though sustainability is often framed as an environmental issue, the concerns of Maui residents — many with ancestry and cultural heritage dating back generations — are a reminder that ensuring future generations can continue to live in Hawaii is key to building resilient communities.
In recent days, some locals reeling from the tragedy said on social media and in news reports that real-estate investors and developers had inquired about buying their land. Hawaii is the most expensive state to live in, at least one study found, with the average Maui home valued at $1 million. That means many Native Hawaiians and longtime locals who work in Lahaina — the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom — can’t afford to buy a home there as luxury resorts and vacation homes pop up and the area gentrifies.
Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii on Monday addressed those concerns during a press conference and said he’d contacted the attorney general about a moratorium on any sales of property damaged by the wildfires.
“I would caution people that it’s going to be a very long time before any growth or housing can be built,” Green said. “You will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here.”
Sterling Higa has watched friends move away from Hawaii over the years in search of more opportunities and a place where they can afford a home. The state’s population has been declining for the past seven years as tens of thousands of people leave.
Higa, the executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a nonprofit led by young locals working to end the housing shortage, told Insider the problem was driven by high demand and not enough new construction because of the high regulatory costs and zoning policies that favor the rich.
“Other cities in the United States have started to come to terms with exclusionary zoning policies that are rooted in racism,” Higa said. “We in Hawaii have not. We still have incredibly restrictive zoning that favors wealthy people and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for less-wealthy people to own a home.”
A woman digs through rubble of a home destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Higa rents a home with his family in Haiku on the North Shore of Maui that was spared from the wildfires. He also serves on a working group that the governor convened in July after declaring Hawaii’s affordable-housing shortage an emergency.
Right now, people are still in a state of shock and grieving, Higa said. But as Lahaina starts to envision the future, people will need transparency and accountability from local, state, and federal officials.
“If we want a sustainable future, where my four children can stay here, we have to make sure there are abundant affordable housing options for them,” Higa said.