Dozens have died, and over a thousand (historic) buildings have been destroyed. In Lahaina, the city hardest hit by the fires in Hawaii, many people who have lost their homes and jobs are wondering if there is still a place for them.
For years, Lahaina has had everything that makes Hawaii special: stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a charming shopping street and a rich cultural heritage.
Lahaina also has everything that makes Hawaii an increasingly difficult and frustrating place. Tourism dominates, putting pressure on the environment and disrupting daily life. Wealthy visitors push home values to dizzying heights (the median home price in the Lahaina area is $1.7 million), putting homeownership out of reach for most permanent residents. Inside this little slice of western Maui, the community of 13,000 people live out all the economic tensions that have been simmering under Hawaii’s beautiful surface for years.
These tensions are exposed by the devastating wildfires that have ripped through the city of Lahaina over the past week, killing at least 93 people and destroying or damaging as many as 1,700 structures.
Officials and residents maintain that the fires did not discriminate and destroyed both luxury vacation rentals and modest, old homes. Mick Fleetwood, frontman of the Fleetwood Mac, lost his famous restaurant, Fleetwood’s on Front Street, and employees lost their employers.
When residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods for a first look at the damage, many worried about how or if they would be able to rebuild it—a reflection of the inequality of Hawaii’s stratified society. Some Hawaiians, who have lost their homes and jobs, say they can’t figure out how to survive.
Many fear Lahaina will become just another Waikiki, dominated by luxury businesses and packed with tourists.
“My concern is that we’re going to lose a lot of people because it’s going to take a long time” to recover, said Angie Lyon, 46, who owns a company with 50 rental properties in Lahaina. After the fires, about five units remained. Four of its employees lost their homes.
The Leones’ home, just outside Lahaina, was saved. But the community that she and her family love begins to fall apart. A friend who owned a jewelry store told her he was planning to move his family to Kentucky. Leon hopes that officials will quickly approve building permits for the reconstruction and that businesses can reopen quickly.
How this vibrant microcosm of Hawaii recovers from disaster could exacerbate economic tensions or mark a tipping point. Angus McKelvey, a Democratic senator who grew up in Lahaina, says the city is at a “crossroads.”
Many of the neighborhoods that caught fire were densely populated. Over time, the original farmhouses located there were bought by investors and subdivided into flats that were rented out to workers. Due to the density of the city, the fire left about 6,000 people homeless.
McKelvey argues that the state should move quickly to buy the land and redevelop it into quality, affordable housing. The alternative, leaving it to the market, could lead investors to take advantage of the tragedy to “build more expensive homes.” It’s “bold,” he says, but “people are generally afraid of what might rise from the ashes.”
For some, the fires could be the catalyst that brings more balance to the local economy by creating more housing for workers. But others fear the effects of the fires will lead to greater inequality. “There is certainly a concern that companies will take advantage of desperation and buy cheap real estate,” said Dallas Mahone, 27, who lives in an apartment in downtown Lahaina and survived the fire.
He says the community is already beginning to worry about the future of the city and whether people like him and his 80-year-old grandfather, who worked in a bar in Lahaina for ten years, will still have a place there. The demographics of the wider Lahaina area, which has a population of 23,000 people, largely mirrors that of Hawaii. About 9 percent of the population is Native Hawaiian and 26 percent is Asian, according to a report from the University of Hawaii.
Many of the white residents, who now make up 39 percent of the population, came in the 1960s, attracted by surfing and surfing Out of network coverage lifestyle.
Over the past 50 years, Lahaina has grown into a tourism hotspot. Expensive hotels appeared on the ocean, visitors came and some decided to invest. They bought apartments, driving up prices and reducing available housing for Lahaina workers. Up to 40 percent of homes in Lahaina are used for short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb.
The corona pandemic exacerbated the contradictions. Hawaii has the highest home prices in the United States and the Lahaina area has the highest prices in all of Hawaii. North of downtown, far from the worst of the fire damage, an eight-bedroom home on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean is currently for sale for $19.9 million.
Throughout Maui, waiter is the most common job with an average annual wage of $49,000. Retail sales representatives are the second most popular job, earning an average of $29,000 annually. In the Lahaina area, nearly half of the residents rent, with an average rent of $1,800 per month.
Kaila Razonable, 23, works as a hostess at a popular seafood restaurant, where tourists keep coming for reservations they made months ago. Razunable, whose mother hails from Hawaii, says this week got her thinking about a long-term career in the hospitality industry. She values her job, she says, but is exasperated by the behavior of some tourists when so many locals are suffering.
Houses are literally burning to the ground and they are complaining about not getting a table in time. We give tourism a high priority over the locals.” Hawaiians, like indigenous communities across the country, have a deep connection to the land and wildlife. The fires are proof that “we’re not listening to the country,” Razunable says. “Then you get this.”
© The New York Times
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