Transients in Maui Struggle with Housing Crisis After Devastating Wildfire as Tourists Return

by Gabriel Martinez
Maui Wildfire Housing Crisis

Charles Nahale faced sleepless nights in the rear of his pickup truck following the devastating wildfire that laid waste to his home and the community of Lahaina. Subsequent nights offered little respite: Nahale, a musician by trade, took temporary shelter at an abandoned hotel where he had previously entertained guests, making do with makeshift seating arrangements.

Eventually, Nahale managed to secure a timeshare condominium equipped with basic amenities, only to be relocated once again—this time to another hotel condominium—by officials.

Nahale is not alone; he is part of a growing populace leading a peripatetic existence following the most lethal wildfire in the U.S. in over a hundred years, which claimed a minimum of 99 lives. The inferno obliterated thousands of structures and rendered residents homeless, who now grapple with challenges that are uniquely exacerbated by Maui’s geographical location and its significance as a tourist destination.

“Addressing basic needs is a challenge in itself when you’re constantly on the move,” said Nahale.

Many are caught in a cycle of moving between hotel rooms, often to accommodate tourists who are integral to Maui’s economy. The quest for affordable housing has become increasingly challenging due to a pre-existing shortage, further strained by the destruction of approximately 3,000 homes and apartments in Lahaina by the wildfire.

Transporting temporary mobile homes—commonly used in disaster relief elsewhere—is impractical in Maui due to logistical constraints and the island’s humid conditions.

After the August 8 fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) financed the relocation of Nahale and around 8,000 other displaced residents into hotels and short-term lodgings. As of more than two months post-disaster, approximately 6,900 individuals remain in temporary accommodations.

Bob Fenton, the FEMA regional administrator overseeing Hawaii, acknowledged the unique circumstances that necessitated an atypical number of hotel stays. He expressed his agency’s commitment to transitioning people into more stable living conditions.

The Red Cross, tasked with managing FEMA’s hotel program, is placing Nahale in another condominium, but availability is limited to 12 days. “Finding a long-term place to stay is daunting when thousands are in the same predicament,” Nahale noted.

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern and Gov. Josh Green emphasized that no one would be removed from short-term housing without an alternative long-term solution in place.

Among the few who have secured housing is Tiffany Teruya, who found a two-bedroom rental for her and her 13-year-old son at a cost of $3,000 per month, a significant increase from her pre-disaster housing costs.

Efforts to match evacuees with landlords via a website have met with limited success. According to the website’s creator, Matt Jachowski, the financial gap between what landlords demand and what evacuees can afford is a significant hurdle.

To bridge this gap, at least temporarily, FEMA has increased its rental assistance by 75%. Long-term solutions will require new affordable housing developments, some of which are pending zoning approvals or water source evaluations.

FEMA is also considering the construction of up to 500 modular units using prefabricated materials or 3D printing. Sites have been identified near existing infrastructure, which could later be adapted for permanent housing.

Nahale described the ordeal as a “secondary humanitarian crisis,” advocating for a compassionate approach that would allow people to remain in their current lodgings through the holiday season.

However, with tourists returning and occupancy rates rising, authorities maintain that revitalizing the tourism industry is crucial for economic stability. The unemployment rate in Maui surged to 8.4% in September, a sharp increase from 3.4% in the same month the previous year.

Nahale finds solace in music, often playing a song written by his late friend, renowned Hawaiian musician Roland Cazimero, which he believes has healing properties.

“Please be cautious/Of the perils that abound/Strive not to live in fear/Of the paths that lie ahead,” Nahale performed, first in English and subsequently in Hawaiian.

“That song just seemed appropriate,” he concluded.

Contributions to this report were made by Jennifer Sinco Kelleher of Big Big News.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Maui Wildfire Housing Crisis

What led to the transient lifestyle of many residents in Maui?

Many residents in Maui have been forced into a transient lifestyle due to the devastating wildfire that struck the island, specifically affecting the community of Lahaina. The fire was the deadliest in the U.S. in over a century, claiming at least 99 lives and destroying thousands of homes and apartments.

Who is Charles Nahale and what challenges has he faced?

Charles Nahale is a musician who lived in Lahaina before the wildfire. He has faced numerous challenges including homelessness and having to shuffle between various short-term lodgings such as his pickup truck, evacuated hotels, and timeshare condominiums. Like many others, he has struggled to find stable housing.

How is FEMA involved in the housing crisis post-wildfire in Maui?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) financed the relocation of around 8,000 displaced residents into hotels, vacation rentals, and other short-term housing options. The agency is also considering long-term solutions, such as constructing modular units using prefabricated materials or 3D printing.

What issues are complicating the relocation efforts in Maui?

Several factors are complicating the situation. Firstly, Maui’s status as a tourist hub means that many hotel rooms are being reserved for returning tourists, which are crucial for the local economy. Secondly, there was a pre-existing housing shortage and steep rental prices on the island, which have been exacerbated by the fire. Lastly, logistical issues and Hawaii’s humid climate make it impractical to bring in mobile homes as temporary shelters.

What role is the Red Cross playing in this situation?

The Red Cross is administering FEMA’s hotel stay program and is responsible for placing displaced residents in short-term accommodations. The organization is committed to not removing anyone from short-term housing until a long-term solution is in place.

What are some of the economic implications of the wildfire on Maui?

The wildfire has had a profound impact on Maui’s economy. The immediate aftermath saw a decline in tourism, which led to plenty of empty hotel rooms. Moreover, the unemployment rate surged to 8.4% in September, up from 3.4% the same month in the previous year.

What efforts are being made to match fire evacuees with landlords?

A Maui-based software developer, Matt Jachowski, created a website to match fire evacuees with potential landlords. However, the initiative has had limited success, primarily because of the financial gap between what evacuees can afford and what landlords are asking for.

How are some people managing to find housing despite the crisis?

Some individuals, like Tiffany Teruya, have been able to secure housing through extended networks or by utilizing aid money. However, these instances are rare and many are still struggling to find affordable, long-term housing solutions.

What long-term solutions are being considered for the housing crisis in Maui?

Long-term solutions include constructing new affordable housing developments. Some of these are awaiting zoning approvals or need to be evaluated for sufficient water sources. Additionally, FEMA is considering building up to 500 modular units as temporary accommodations.

How are displaced residents coping emotionally and mentally?

Many residents, including Charles Nahale, find solace in various forms of personal expression, such as music. The persistent instability and challenges make it difficult for many to begin the healing process.

More about Maui Wildfire Housing Crisis

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Red Cross Disaster Relief Services
  • Maui County Official Website
  • Hawaii State Unemployment Statistics
  • Impact of Natural Disasters on Housing Market
  • Maui Tourism Board
  • U.S. Wildfire Statistics and Reports
  • Affordable Housing Initiatives in Hawaii
  • Shipping Challenges to Hawaii
  • Historical Wildfires in the U.S.

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Tim Johnson October 22, 2023 - 6:11 am

its amazing how people like Charles find solace in music, even in times like this. But man, they need a real solution, and fast.

Sara Williams October 22, 2023 - 10:14 am

Didn’t even think about how Maui’s an island and that complicates things. Usually, you could just crash with family for a bit, but here, it’s not that simple.

Emily Davis October 22, 2023 - 10:47 am

The rent prices are insane! Landlords asking for $8k-10k a month? That’s crazy. Good on FEMA for upping their assistance though.

Rachel Lee October 22, 2023 - 3:30 pm

Red Cross is trying, but how long can this be sustainable? Also, kudos to the software developer tryin to help out. We need more ppl like him.

Robert Green October 22, 2023 - 6:00 pm

Economy’s important, but so are human lives. Its a tough balance, but the island’s authorities have to find a way to help their own ppl while keeping the economy afloat.

John Smith October 22, 2023 - 9:54 pm

Man, this is heart wrenching. These ppl are goin through a lot. And the tourism industry just wants their rooms back… really makes u think.

Mike O'Brien October 23, 2023 - 2:28 am

The govt needs to step up. FEMA’s doing its bit, but what about long-term? These folks cant live in hotels forever.


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