Lahaina Strong group to stay at Kaanapali Beach until housing demands met

Nov. 11—Lahaina Strong was originally formed following the fires from Hurricane Lane in August 2018, and was reactivated after the deadly Aug. 8 fires, which killed at least 99 people.

KAANAPALI—Lahaina Strong, a grassroots organization focused on Lahaina's recovery and resilience, held a demonstration of customary and traditional rights to draw attention to the long-term housing crisis facing thousands of Lahaina residents since the Aug. 8 Maui wildfires.

The hui, which peppered the public access portion of Kaanapali Beach in front of Whaler's Village with tents and fishing poles Friday, is calling for immediate action from Maui Mayor Richard Bissen and Gov. Josh Green to use their legal authority to ensure Lahaina's displaced families obtain "dignified housing."

They termed their action, "Lahaina Strong Hui : Fishing for Dignified Housing, " and held a news conference at noon to talk about their demands and proposed actions.

Native Hawaiians, who are engaging in customary and traditional rights, may bypass beach closures so placing fishing poles on the beach gives them the opportunity to occupy the beach. Some Lahaina Strong members slept on the beach Thursday night, and the hui indicated that more tents will likely go up to house displaced residents. They said such a highly visible place was chosen to highlight the urgency of the coming housing crisis.

The action, which some said will continue until their housing demands are satisfied, harks back to Hawaiian leader Dennis "Bumpy " Kanahele's playbook. In the early 1990s, Kanahele and his group of 300 mostly Native Hawaiians attracted international attention when they occupied Makapuu Beach Park on Oahu or 15 months, prompting heated tensions with then-Mayor Frank Fasi. The ordeal led to Kanahele's group signing a 55-year lease in 1994 with the state for undeveloped mauka lands for $3, 000 per year, or $250 per month.

Lahaina Strong was originally formed following the fires from Hurricane Lane in August 2018, and was reactivated after the deadly Aug. 8 fires, which killed at least 99 people. The fires also destroyed or damaged more than 2, 700 structures and more than 3, 500 homes.

The hui previously presented Green with a petition to delay the Phase 1 reopening of Maui tourism past Oct. 8. Now they are urging Green and Bissen to use their emergency powers to convert the thousands of transient vacation rentals and short-term rentals in West Maui into long-term rentals. They also want rent controls and protections such as immediate mortgage deferral for all homes completely lost in the fire and back-end abatement of all properties not engaged in short-term rental.

Lahaina Strong has started another petition saying that "short-term rentals, operating in West Maui without permits but legally under the Minatoya list, must be converted into long-term rentals for a minimum of one year to house displaced residents of Lahaina."

The petition, at / lahainastrong, states that there are more than 2, 000 units on the Minatoya list and converting them would be a more viable and compassionate housing option than Matson containers or boxable homes.

Pa 'ele Kiakona, Lahaina Strong advocacy and communications coordinator, said during the news conference, "The haste to reboot tourism brings with it the specter of displacement and further indifference to those already suffering. Countless of our kin linger in temporary shelters, with the looming threat of being uprooted yet again.

"That is why today, we plant our feet firmly, vowing to remain steadfast until our voices are heard, our needs met."

Lahaina Strong's "Fishing for Housing " action comes as Maui tourism is trying to recover from a significant downturn, which has caused an economic crisis. Maui tourism was shut down immediately after the fire, and then was reopened save for West Maui. Nonessential travel to West Maui began a phased reopening Oct. 8, and was fully reopened Nov. 1.

The reopening has allowed some West Maui hotels to begin welcoming visitors back. That's helped Maui retailers, activities and attractions, food and beverage providers, and rental car companies bring more employees back to work. But it's also increased anxiety in the community about where the thousands of displaced fire survivors who have been living in hotels will go after Nov. 30, when many hotel contracts with Red Cross are set to expire.

Jordan Ruidas, Lahaina Strong campaigns coordinator, said fire survivors need long-term housing, but "in this already tight housing market, there's simply nowhere to go."

"Recognizing the limitations of Band-Aid fixes, Lahaina Strong is organizing Fishing for Lahaina to shed light on the urgent need for more substantial and sustainable solutions for our people, " she said. While promises of temporary solutions like hotel rooms have been made, they don't address the root problem the first-time experiences of Lahaina fire victims highlight the challenges that families face with hotel living, especially as the holidays approach. Families want to cook, have visitors, and create a sense of normalcy which is often constrained in these hotel environments."

Kiakona said Lahaina Strong is getting stronger, and now has the support of at least two dozen other organizations.

"Expect us to be relentless like the sun of Lahaina. All the powers that be right now they should be wary Lahaina Strong is getting stronger, " Kaikona said. "Change is within our grasp, but it is community that holds the key. We have a legacy of finding solutions for leaders when they falter."

Green's office responded by email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, saying, "Governor Green is daily working with partners including Maui County on securing long-term housing for Maui residents displaced by the August 8 wildfires. Hawaii's statewide housing crisis was exacerbated by the fires, making housing efforts that much more challenging."

It's not yet known the impact that Fishing for Lahaina will have on the Maui's visitor industry recovery. While some curious visitors stopped by the Lahaina Strong tents Friday, most were shopping, eating at restaurants or spending time on the other side of the shoreline.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said Kaanapali's hotel rooms are still heavily weighted with residents and employees "so as far as any short-term issues, I don't think they are there, and everybody is entitled to their opinion. But when we look at future bookings, there continues to be concerns and questions being asked by travelers whether they are really welcome on Maui and should they be going."

However, Vieira said if Lahaina Strong's action goes on for a long time or gets enough press it could make people delay visiting Maui, which "probably hurts the people who are supporting this."

"Kaanapali still is the engine that drives Maui most of the tax revenue and employment is there so its recovery is important to the island. I hope people recognize that economically we just can't afford more determents to growth and repair, " he said.

Vieria said some Red Cross and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts have been extended at Kaanapali hotels into next year, and the expectation at those properties is that about half of the occupancy will be residents and workers and the other half visitors.

"It's a situation that allows the transition for people back into the community. We feel we are doing our share and think everybody is going to have to step up and figure out what the plan is for residents, " he said.