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Post-wildfires, Hawaii struggles to deal with housing crisis

homeless man with bicycle and sunbrella

Honolulu, HAWAII — Hawaii's high rate of homelessness and housing costs has been highlighted in the wake of last month's wildfires which devastated the town of Lahaina in Maui, leaving thousands homeless and 115 dead.

It's exerted more pressure on Hawaii's government to address the issue.

"We don't have enough have houses for our people...it's really that simple," said Josh Green on July 17 following his issuing of an emergency proclamation.

"That is where we are and we are struggling and suffering.

"If anyone says they don't think this is an emergency or a crisis, they do not know what's going on in Hawaii."

In the emergency proclamation, Green pledged to build 50,000 houses before 2025. It comes in the midst of widespread public discontent over cost of living in Hawaii. According to Hawaii's Senate Housing Committee, an average of 14,000 Hawaiians leave the state every year.

"If you need a nurse, a lot of times you can't find them because we don't have a house that they can afford," said Green.

"If your child needs a teacher and they don't have one in their classroom ...it's probably because we don't have enough teachers in the state because they can't afford housing. If that's not a crisis, if that's not an emergency, I don't know what is."

In 2022, Hawaii recorded the fourth highest rate of homelessness in the United States. It's also the most expensive state to buy a house and has the second highest mortgage rates in the country - behind New York.

Maui Attorney Lance Collins assists the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Progressive Action, a social justice advocacy group that assists Hawaiians in protecting their land rights in legal disputes.

Collins says reforms are needed as expensive housing has long characterised the state's economic landscape. He said it was a deliberate mechanism of Hawaii's economic system that goes back over a century.

"I don't see it as a crisis, I see it as part of the structure of our system," said Collins.

"Until the system is changed we're unlikely to see an abatement of the shortage of affordable housing."

"There's just a permanent lack of affordable housing for workers and there has been for over a hundred years going back to the plantation days...that model of having a lack of affordable housing for workers has just persisted," said Collins.

Collins is sceptical of pledges by the Hawaiian state to build more homes.

He said only a systematic reform of Hawaii's property market and laws could solve the problem.

"The intentions are good but it's not a supply issue and the so-called emergency proclamation is not limited to building affordable housing, in fact, there's no requirement that any of the houses that are built will be affordable under the proclamation."

It's an issue that's been exacerbated by the devastation caused by wildfires earlier this month.

On August 8, thousands were left homeless after fires destroyed most of Lahaina, leaving 115 dead in the latest update.

Controversy arose as thousands of locals slept in gymnasiums, church halls and their cars, while Maui's many hotels catered to tourists who continued to fly into the state.

It took three weeks for the state to eventually move over 6000 people into hotels and Airbnbs.

Governor Green said in his latest update, his government was doing everything to support the evacuees.

"We don't want anyone to become homeless because of this (disaster)," said Green.

"There are 19 hotels which have stepped up and another 1100 people in Airbnbs.

"We want to get people at least 18 months of housing."

But a number of people from Maui have told RNZ Pacific they're uncertain about their future - apart from losing their homes they've also lost their jobs as result of the disaster.

Tonata Lolesio, principle of Sacred Hearts high school in Lahaina - which was destroyed by the fires - said some of her students and their families have already left the state.

"The situation out here is dire, the displaced people are moving from hotel to hotel, some in days, so the housing is a crisis," said Lolesio.

"They're in a living situation where they're also having to move from place to place...and all of what they own is in a backpack.

"Of the 220 students that we started the school year with, on August 1st, only a hundred have returned...the rest are scattered throughout the state and mainland,

"The tourists have all been sent home so now there's the situation with the economy."

Hawaii's government has pledged to rebuild homes but a time frame is yet to be announced.