Lahaina residents fear a rebuilt Maui town could fall into the hands of wealthy outsiders

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Richy Palalay identified so closely with his hometown of Maui that he had a tattoo artist permanently tattoo “Lahaina Grown” on his forearms when he was 16.

But a chronic housing shortage and an influx of second-home buyers and affluent resettlers have pushed out residents like Palalay, who give Lahaina its spirit and identity.

A fast liver wildfire that burned much of the compact coastal settlement Concerns have multiplied last week that rebuilt homes there are targeting wealthy outsiders seeking a tropical escape. That would speed up what is already one of Hawaii even more greatest and greatest challenges: The Exodus and expulsion of the Hawaiian natives and locals who can no longer afford to live in their homeland.

“I’m more concerned that big land developers will come in and see this charred land as an opportunity to rebuild,” Palalay said Saturday at a shelter for evacuees.

Hotels and condos “that we can’t afford, that we can’t live in — that’s what we’re scared of,” he said.

Richy Palalay, 25, was born and raised in Lahaina.
Richy Palalay, 25, was born and raised in Lahaina.

Palalay, 25, was born and raised in Lahaina. At the age of 16 he started working at a seaside seafood restaurant in the city and worked his way up to head chef. He trained as a sous chef.

Then on Tuesday the devastating forest fire broke out, which destroyed wooden houses and historic streets within a few hours and cost the lives of at least 93 people. It was the deadliest wildfire in the United States in a century.

Maui County estimates that more than 80% of the more than 2,700 buildings in the city have been damaged or destroyed and 4,500 residents are in need of new housing.

The fire burned Palalay’s restaurant, his neighborhood, his friends’ homes, and possibly even the four-bedroom house where he pays $1,000 a month to rent a room. He and his roommates did not have a chance to return to examine it themselves, despite seeing images showing their neighborhood in ruins.

He said the city that once was Capital of the former Hawaiian kingdom in the 19th century made him the man he is today.

“Lahaina is my home. Lahaina is my pride. My life. My joy,” he said in a text message, adding that the city had taught him “unimaginable lessons about love, struggle, discrimination, passion, division and unity.”

The average price of a home on Maui is $1.2 million, making a single-family home unaffordable for the average earner. For many it is not even possible to buy a condo as the average condo price is around $850,000.

Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a nonprofit dedicated to improving housing in Hawaii, said the town is home to many homes that have been in the hands of local families for generations. But it’s also subject to gentrification.

“Many newcomers — typically from mainland America, who have more money and can buy houses at a higher price — have to some extent displaced local families in Lahaina,” Higa said. It’s a phenomenon he’s observed all across Maui’s west coast, where a modest entry-level home two decades ago is now selling for $1 million.

Residents with insurance or government grants may receive funds to help rebuild, but those disbursements can take years and recipients may find that they are insufficient to pay rent or purchase alternative property in the meantime.

Many on Kauai fought to make insurance payments for years after Hurricane Iniki hit the island in 1992, saying the same could happen in Lahaina, Higa said.

“While they’re coming to terms with this — the frustration of struggling with insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency — many of them may be going because there aren’t any other options,” Higa said.

“I have no money to help rebuild. I’ll put on a construction hat and help get this ship going. I will not leave this place,” he said. “Where should I go?”

Gov. Josh Green told reporters during a visit to Lahaina with FEMA that he would not allow Lahaina to become too expensive for locals after it was rebuilt. He said he was considering how the state could acquire land for labor housing or open space as a memorial to those who died.

“We want Lahaina to remain a part of Hawaii forever,” Green said. “We don’t want it to be another example of people being driven out of paradise.”

McAvoy reported from Wailuku, Hawaii.

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