The recent wildfires in Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, not only destroyed high-profile properties owned by billionaires such as Oprah Winfrey, Peter Thiel, and Jeff Bezos, but also wiped out modest houses and apartments that were home to many workers in the booming tourism industry. Maui has long struggled with a housing crisis, and the destruction caused by the wildfires has only exacerbated the problem. Leslie Wilkins, president of the Maui Economic Development Board, described the situation as a “grossly exacerbated” housing crisis.
Maui’s economy has faced a tumultuous time, particularly during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Tourist visits to Maui County came to a halt, and unemployment soared to 27 percent. While tourism has since recovered, the shortage of workforce housing has made the recovery more challenging. Maui became a hot housing market during the pandemic, with wealthy buyers from the mainland purchasing homes remotely, often with all-cash transactions. As a result, housing prices in Maui County increased by about 35 percent from 2019 to 2022.
Affordable housing developments on Maui have struggled to get approved due to neighborhood opposition and bureaucratic red tape. Additionally, a significant portion of the housing stock is used for vacation rentals, further limiting the supply of available housing. The recent fire damage is expected to force people to confront the housing crisis on the island.
The rising costs of living in Maui have forced some workers to leave the island and seek employment on the U.S. mainland. Hawaii has the highest cost of living among all states, with expensive everyday groceries due to the majority of food being imported. High building material costs also present challenges to the rebuilding efforts following the wildfires. Gov. Josh Green acknowledged the housing shortage emergency order and highlighted the need for permanent housing for those displaced by the fires, with an estimated 1,700 structures destroyed.
Legacy houses, passed down through generations, have housed multiple people in a single dwelling due to the lack of affordable alternatives. However, these houses are often not insured or insulated to meet current codes, making the cost of rebuilding prohibitive for many families. Some people may choose not to rebuild in Maui at all.
The fire may be the breaking point for families in Maui’s increasingly unequal economy. Robbie Wares, whose home was destroyed in the fire, wonders what the future holds for her and her neighbors who lived in poorly maintained apartments. Despite the potential value of the land, she is unsure where she would go if she sold the property, as she cannot tolerate the cold winters on the mainland.
In conclusion, the wildfires in Lahaina have not only devastated high-profile properties but have also exacerbated Maui’s existing housing crisis. The shortage of workforce housing, coupled with rising costs of living, has made it increasingly difficult for workers in the tourism industry to afford housing. The destruction caused by the fires has forced the island to confront and find solutions to the housing challenges it faces.