Growing Fears of ‘Climate Gentrification’ Follow Maui’s Disastrous Fires

by Madison Thomas
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Last Friday, Kim Cuevas-Reyes, a 38-year-old business owner, surreptitiously ventured into Lahaina, Hawaii, to inspect the destruction of her home and shop. What she found left her in shock.

“There’s just a couple of inches of ash. Everything else is gone,” she described, expressing her hope to rebuild and communicating with her insurance company.

In Lahaina, over 3,000 structures suffered damage from fire and smoke, leading to insured losses of approximately $3.2 billion, says Karen Clark & Company, a leading risk assessment firm.

Hawaii’s existing housing crisis, which has already made living unaffordable for numerous Native Hawaiians and longtime residents, now faces the potential threat of “climate gentrification.” This phenomenon occurs when local populations can no longer afford housing in safer regions following climate-related disasters.

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Jesse Keenan, a scholar specializing in sustainable real estate, began discussing climate gentrification in 2013 after recognizing its impact on housing markets.

Jennifer Gray Thompson, CEO of After the Fire USA, warns that Maui presents one of the most alarming prospects for gentrification due to high land prices, severe trauma, and those ready to exploit the situation. Thompson foresees aggressive marketing by potential investors.

Hawaii’s Governor, Josh Green, announced a temporary ban on selling damaged properties in Lahaina, aiming to protect locals from predatory buyers. Thompson strongly supports this move but recognizes that some may still need to sell.

Climate experts link extreme weather events, such as storms, fires, and floods, to global warming, ranking Hawaii among the riskiest states. Non-climate-related threats like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes further add to the risk.

Research reveals that wildfire disasters in Hawaii have matched the total from 1953 to 2003, just this month, and the burned area has increased significantly since the 1980s.

Justin Tyndall of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization highlights Hawaii’s status as the most costly state for housing, with median prices for single-family homes in Maui exceeding $1 million.

Tyndall stresses that wildfires need serious attention now, whereas previously, concerns were more focused on coastal erosion, sea level rise, and hurricanes.

Maui’s strict housing regulations have unintentionally limited new constructions, making housing more expensive for all. Tyndall notes that the Native Hawaiian community has been affected the most, resulting in a significant exodus.

The Indigenous-led NDN Collective supports community-driven rebuilding in Lahaina, embracing Native Hawaiian values and connections to the land.

Jesse Keenan popularized the concept of climate gentrification, a phenomenon evident in Miami, where rising sea levels are causing upheaval in Black communities that historically lived at higher elevations.

While gentrification can increase home values, it may lead to displacement for renters and small businesses.

Examples include the aftermath of California’s 2018 Camp Fire and the rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the original community character was lost.

Santina Contreras of the University of Southern California highlights Maui’s vulnerability to climate gentrification due to its allure, tourism demand, and developmental opportunities.

However, Katharine Mach of the University of Miami warns against immediately labeling situations as climate gentrification without considering other factors like discrimination and inequitable disaster management.

Big Big News correspondents Heather Hollingsworth and Seth Borenstein also contributed to this report.

The climate and environmental reporting by Big Big News is backed by various private foundations. More about AP’s climate initiative can be found here. The AP maintains full responsibility for the content.

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