Lahaina “Fishing for Housing” Advocates Call for Change

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Photo: Fishing for Housing Sign with Inverted Hawaiian FlagIn an effort to address the ongoing critical housing needs of residents displaced by the wildfires that ravaged Lahaina last August, the Lahaina Strong Hui, comprised of 38 West Maui organizations and businesses, launched the “Fishing For Dignified Housing” movement on November 10.

“Our ‘fish-in’ is simply Lahaina Strong occupying Kāʻanapali Beach while raising awareness for the many issues we are still dealing with in Lahaina,” explained Lahaina Strong Campaigns Coordinator Jordan Ruidas. “Our routine as Lahaina Strong is to hold down camp, support community members, educate tourists, take interviews, etc.”

She adds that the group’s other activities include empowering the community by raising awareness, and by holding community events and meetings.

The Lahaina Strong Hui, also known simply as “Lahaina Strong,” was formed five years ago to address the needs of Lahaina residents after an earlier wildfire scorched some 2,100 acres in Lahaina, destroying 21 homes and causing $4.3 million in damages on Aug. 24, 2018.

Since that time, Lahaina Strong has been advocating for centering the recovery of Lahaina on the needs of Kānaka Maoli and kamaʻāina residents, as well as for the restoration of water and land rights.

“We are taking a stand for housing to be provided and will keep standing up for the people of Lahaina through the whole process and beyond,” Ruidas declared. “Community is what always comes through when stuff like this happens. We have seen it with the 2018 fires and saw it again this time. Community is our best attribute!”

For many in West Maui and beyond, Lahaina Strong also represents a powerful call for change as more Kānaka Maoli and local residents are priced out of Hawaiʻi due to soaring housing costs and the overall high cost of living.

“Maui was already going through a major housing crisis before the wildfires. The fires displaced roughly 10,000 people by burning most of the local people’s housing. We are taking a stand for housing to be provided – and will keep standing up for the people of Lahaina through the whole process and beyond,” said Ruidas.

Photo: Hawaiian Flags on the beach at sunset

For many in the community, the ‘fish-in’ has provided much needed educational and emotional support as people continue to be shuffled between hotels.

According to Lahaina Strong, there are about 6,700 people still living in hotels – and many have had to relocate more than eight times in the last four months.

Displaced families have reported that, while some hotels have been compassionate towards them, others have not. Families can be evicted on short notice and many do not have access to kitchen and laundry facilities. Large families with children have even been placed in different hotels due to maximum room capacity.

Ruidas said that while she believes that state and federal agencies have done their best, the most daunting problem to finding long term solutions is the actual lack of available housing.

“We have heard the agencies say that they want to sign long-term leases for victims, but they can’t find places to actually sign long-term leases for,” Ruidas noted.

To help address this, the Maui County Council recently passed Bill 131 that incentivizes short-term rental owners with a 100% real property tax exemption to those willing to provide long-term housing for displaced families. The bill passed on its first reading and received over 680 written testimonies proving the measure has strong community support. As of press time, the bill was awaiting final approval.

Ruidas believes that there are additional measures that the governor and mayor could take to increase the inventory of long term housing. “It’s time for our mayor and or governor to enact an immediate moratorium on short-term rentals, especially in Lahaina, so they can be rented long-term by fire victims,” Ruidas said.

Compounding the situation has been the re-opening of tourism in West Maui. While displaced families are grateful for the support hotels initially provided, many now feel that tourists are being prioritized while they are still struggling to find stable housing and coping with trauma.

“They [the government] did not provide housing before they [re]opened tourism. What does that say to you? It says you don’t matter. Tourism matters,” said Maui advocate and Nā Aikāne Hub volunteer Carol Lee Kamekona. “Our families still don’t know where they will lay their head the next day. ʻShelters’ are not housing.”

Kamekona, like many others on Maui, applauds the efforts of Lahaina Strong as well as groups like Maui Rapid Response.

“I love them. They are bringing awareness that something must be done and telling the government to stop this nonchalant attitude. Sometimes direct action needs to be taken. People don’t understand the amount of destruction that has happened in Lahaina. It will take years to rebuild Lahaina and in the meantime, why should we keep getting pushed off our own homeland?”

Adds Ruidas, “Maui needs help, major help. The tourism industry is being put before the people once again. We in West Maui are looking to flip the script, diversify our economy and create the Lahaina we, the people, want. We are hoping to inspire other places to do so as well.”