Maui wildfire survivors camp on the beach to push mayor to convert vacation rentals into housing


LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — A group of Lahaina wildfire survivors is vowing to camp on a popular resort beach until the mayor uses his emergency powers to shut down unpermitted vacation rentals and make the properties available for residents in desperate need of housing.

Organizers with the group Lahaina Strong are focusing on 2,500 vacation rental properties they’ve identified in West Maui that don’t have the usual county permits to be rented out for less than 30 days at a time. For years their owners have legally rented the units to travelers anyway because the county granted them an exemption from the standard rules.

Lahaina Strong says the mayor should use his emergency powers to suspend this exemption.

“I’m kind of at the point where I’m like ‘too bad, so sad,’” said organizer Jordan Ruidas. “We never knew our town was going to burn down and our people need housing,”

The group says they are staying on Kaanapali Beach, exercising their Native Hawaiian rights to fish 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They planted fishing poles in the sand and are calling their action “Fishing for Housing.”

Lance Collins, a Maui attorney, said the mayor has the authority to suspend the county ordinance that has allowed the 2,500 short-term vacation rentals. Similar action was taken during the COVID-19 pandemic when Hawaii’s governor prohibited landlords from raising rents and when both the federal and state governments banned evictions, Collins said.

“Temporary alterations to the market to protect the common good and the welfare of our community as a whole is permitted on a temporary basis in the face of an emergency,” he said.

Permanently eliminating the exemption would require the county council to pass new legislation.

Ruidas said the 2,500 units at issue could house a large share of the 7,000 Lahaina residents who are still staying in hotels months after the Aug. 8 fire destroyed their town.

Vacationers have other options for places to stay, but Lahaina’s residents don’t, she said.

Maui, like much of Hawaii, had a severe housing shortage even before the fire killed 100 people and destroyed more than 2,000 structures. The blaze only amplified the crisis.

The U.S. government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been putting survivors up in hotel rooms. They are also helping people pay rent, but the housing shortage means many survivors can’t find apartments or homes to move into.

West Maui is one of the state’s biggest tourist destinations, second only to Waikiki. Just north of historic Lahaina, large hotels and timeshare properties line a miles-long stretch of white sand beach in the communities of Kaanapali and Napili-Honokowai. Condominiums there are rented to vacationers on a short-term basis.

At Kaanapali Beach during a recent weekday, about a dozen people sat under tents talking, eating lunch and explaining what they were doing to tourists who stopped to ask. Upside down Hawaiian flags, a sign distress, billowed in gusty winds.

Ruidas said the group will stay until the mayor suspends the vacation property exemptions.

“We’re at the point where we’re going to fight for everything and anything because a lot of us feel like we have nothing. We have nothing to lose,” she said.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a statement that he is considering all options, but declaring a moratorium on short-term rentals would invite legal challenges and could have unintended consequences. His office is working with property managers who handle a significant number of short-term rentals, and Bissen said he has been encouraged by their willingness to cooperate.

“Shared sacrifice is necessary at this crucial time as we work to incentivize interim housing,” Bissen said.

Some in the tourism industry support the residents’ protest.

“We thank them for what they’re doing because in order for us to even think of tourism, we need our workers,” said Kawika Freitas, director of public and cultural relations at the Old Lahaina Luau.

Freitas’ company puts on shows featuring traditional Hawaiian music, dance and food. The business is still standing, but the company says decisions about reopening depend on when employees and the Lahaina community are ready.

Freitas told a recent Native Hawaiian convention that Maui’s people will leave if they don’t have housing and will be replaced by workers from out of state.

“And all of a sudden, the beauty and what Maui stands for is not there,” Freitas said. “We need to get our people back into housing.”

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