Meeting critical housing needs through community-led efforts
By Keani Rawlins-Fernandez
In every disaster, our community has shown up for one another, responding quickly to cobble together critical support systems that provide basic needs not made immediately available by the government—including water, food and medicine.
Now, our residents are asking our elected officials to step up and provide for the one basic need they cannot sustainably materialize on their own: housing.
The ongoing uncertainty surrounding residential shelter continues to cause anxiety and trauma for our people. Like many in our community, I’m afraid that our people will lose hope and continue to move away, or worse.
Even before the fire, the county struggled to limit residential-housing commodification, leaving needed housing largely vacant and residential units in short supply or out of residents’ financial reach. Our residents’ need for shelter cannot compete with speculator profiteering, exacerbating the disparity between local necessity and maximum gain.
Unchecked and undermanaged, the short-term-rental industry has been like a wildfire, rapidly consuming residential housing for offshore-investor profits, displacing our residents and degrading the fabric of our communities.
Ironically, the tourist industry that assumes its own economic benefit to our islands has been simultaneously dismantling itself with its continuous spread, displacing our workforce, who are made to relocate elsewhere in search of affordable shelter. The exodus of our workforce has caused our local businesses to suffer labor shortages, which in turn impact services and eventually leads to revenue loss and business failure.
We see the same rise in vacancies occurring within our county departments, which should be of great concern, as critical health and safety services have suffered. Our community has suffered.
Even more staggering is the loss of generational families who maintain the ‘ike and wisdom to protect and properly manage the longstanding systems that have been passed down that make our home so special. We are literally losing the lifeblood of our place.
For a very long time, our community has seen the trend more clearly than elected leadership, and has consistently cautioned and pleaded with officials to protect resident interests and safety over tourism profits, to no avail.
Like a phoenix born out of the 2018 Lahaina Fire, Lahaina Strong emerged as a unified voice to lift our community in its time of need. Reignited in 2023, the group has been “fishing for dignified interim housing” at Kāʻanapali, underscoring the most pragmatic approach to immediate dignified housing options by using existing units to house our residents who have lost their homes in the fire.
Once more, community members are beseeching elected leadership to prioritize our residents’ health and safety over tourists and their vacations.
In response to this community effort, the administration has been working on creating tax incentives to encourage voluntary compliance from short-term-rental owners. The hope is that some owners will be here for our community in our greatest time of need; however, there is the likelihood that many will not be willing to forgo the prospective profits that their units could generate for them.
Maui Hale Match has helped to analyze data exposing the substantial difference between the vacation-rental costs of these units and long-term-rental costs. In West Maui alone, over 2,000 units, many of which once housed residents, are used as vacation rentals as a result of ill-conceived legislation in the ‘80s.
Together with the Maui Nui Resiliency Hui, my office has been working on legislation that will accomplish a long-term solution to phase out short-term rentals operating outside of compliance and convert them to back to long-term housing.
The intention is to reform the housing solutions’ narrative and create more immediate and long-lasting housing solutions that provide dignified shelter for our generational families and our valued workforce who are the lifeblood of our economy and community, while maintaining real property tax revenue.
This devastating fire has tested the fortitude of our leaders, the resilience of our systems and the bond of our community. The next generation of leadership has literally been forged by fire. Government must rise to the occasion and lift up their voices, support their needs and invest in their future.
Without our people, we cannot survive as a solvent county. We must prioritize our residents.
*Keani Rawlins-Fernandez is the chair of the Efficiency Solutions and Circular Systems Committee. She holds the County Council seat for the Molokai residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative and community matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.