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Hawaii Already Had a Massive Homelessness Problem. The Maui Wildfires Are Making It Worse

6 minute read

The flames of the Maui fires have engulfed a community in grief, displacing thousands of locals, burning down more than 2,500 acres, destroying artifacts and museums in historic towns, and taking down the homes of hundreds more since early August.

Among the charred remains were 78 long-term and temporary housing units owned by Ka Hale A Ke Ola, a homeless resource center in Maui. The center is one of many short-term emergency shelters that were constructed in 2003 to help the nearly 6,000 people in the state who are unhoused on any given night.

While much of the world recognizes Hawaii as a lush paradise, the Aloha state has the fifth highest rate of homelessness when compared to all other U.S. states, territories, and Washington, D.C. At the center of the issue lies a complicated relationship with tourism—which fuels but can also harm the state—and rising living and housing costs. While shelters were already working to help house families and individuals with unstable living conditions, the Maui fires have further exacerbated the issue, leaving thousands more unhoused and further tightening the already limited housing supply in Maui.

“For individuals and families in our shelter that have a history of homelessness, I think there might be a sense [that this] just couldn't make it harder for [them] to find a home now,” Kurt Schmidt, the shelter programs director at Ka Hale A Ke Ola, says. “Now we have these thousands of people that have lost their homes, and so, I think it's probably disheartening for them and frustrating.”

Understanding the homelessness crisis 

Maui largely depends on tourism for its income. It is an industry that contributes 80% of the county’s wealth, employs residents, and keeps restaurants and small businesses alive. But that dependence on tourism comes at a cost for locals.

Hawaii’s visual appeal makes it a hotspot for out-of-state buyers, who make up about half of all condominium sales in Maui. The state also has the lowest property tax rates in the country, making it ideal for purchasing a home, even if home owners decide to not live there. But if those homes are not in use or being occupied by locals, then it puts “upward pressure on housing prices without providing new housing, hurting local affordability,” according to a University of Hawaii report.

Hawaii leads the way as the most expensive state for housing, with rates that are 2.7 times higher than the national average, according to a University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization report. Researchers point to increased mortgage interest rates as a barrier to homeownership, but data shows that rental properties are no better, with new listings averaging a monthly rate of $2,500.

Read more: The Climate Crisis and Colonialism Destroyed My Maui Home. Where We Must Go From Here

Much of the rising costs have to do with the low housing supply. Maui County has seen a net housing loss over the past five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And across the state more broadly, Hawaii has the most restrictive land use regulations in the country, making it difficult to construct new homes. 

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green issued an emergency proclamation on homelessness this January—which was last renewed in July—that expedites the construction and repair of housing that is designed to transition people out of homelessness. But finding housing on the island is just one part of the picture. 

Hawaii’s location—some 2,400 miles away from the mainland—also makes it the state with the highest cost of living, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

“We're the most remote island in the world,” says Ashley Kelly, the chief operating officer at the Family Life Center, which connects people with unstable living or financial situations to a variety of social support services. “That really inflates the cost of our food [and] electricity…And so when you factor all those things together, it does make a higher cost of living.” Both Kelly and Schmidt tell TIME that many of their patrons have to work two jobs to make ends meet because of low wages on the island. 

And while efforts like the emergency proclamation have been useful, the destruction of the fires has put even more pressure on the state’s low housing supply. 

“Prior to this there just wasn’t enough housing on the island to begin with, not enough that was affordable,” says Schmidt. “And now we have thousands that are displaced because of [the fire] that are going to be competing for the same type of housing that was there minus everything that was lost.” 

Direct impact of the fire 

The fires have also impacted families that had recently found housing through the Family Life Center. Kelly tells TIME that the day after the fires, at least five leases for families who were going to be placed into permanent housing were revoked. In the following days, the center also started getting calls from former patrons who told Kelly they were being evicted after recently being placed into homes. 

“In every single case, it was because somebody lost a home in the fire and they needed to reside in what was their rental property, or a family member of theirs lost a home in the wildfire and they wanted their family to now reside in their rental property,” Kelly said. “Finding housing for any new clients is just not possible right now.”  

Ka Hale A Ke Ola was in the process of purchasing an old hotel complex that would provide more housing opportunities for patrons, but the hotel was burned down in the fire. “It would have been potentially anywhere from 30 to 45 units that we would have had available for not just formerly homeless but working individuals that meet the income guidelines,” Schmidt says.  

For now, hundreds of displaced families have relocated to family members’ homes, or moved to hotels that have opened their doors to locals. Schmidt says many of the people who have temporarily moved into hotels are hotel staff who would not have been able to work at their jobs without housing. The Red Cross predicts families will need housing support from hotels for about seven to eight months, though their stay may be extended if necessary.

In the interim, shelters like the Family Life Center have now pivoted towards purchasing 60 quick-assembly modular homes. The container-like homes are located on a 10-acre lot owned by King’s Cathedral, a church in Kahului, and offer more privacy for families as opposed to communal spaces in mass shelters. 

That housing-first approach is the most ideal to Schmidt, who says that the state either needs to build and renovate homes, or provide more housing opportunities for low income individuals. “We don't need more shelter,” Schmidt says. “We just need more housing, and that’s more affordable housing.”

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