Mayor Richard Bissen says Maui is exploring options to convert short-term vacation rentals for tourists into long-term housing options for displaced locals.
All four island mayors shared a stage Thursday at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s annual convention for a panel discussion about what it would take to develop enough housing to keep local families in Hawaii — a goal often discussed in a state beleaguered by an longstanding affordable living crisis.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami talked about how he has had to make peace with losing friends who disagreed with an affordable housing development he championed in their neighborhood. And he underscored the paradigm shift that occurs when communities are empowered to shape the agenda of the county planning department, not the other way around.
Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth also emphasized the importance of embracing change to move beyond the status quo. If the county permitting system is slow and inefficient, he said, then change the laws that are dragging the process out.
“There’s so many times we get stuck on what we don’t want,” Roth said. “Oftentimes on Hawaii island, we don’t want any development, we don’t want TMT, we don’t want this. We focus on things we don’t want instead of what we do want.”
The convention had originally planned for Oahu, but organizers decided to move it to Maui in a show of support for the Valley Isle.
One of the things Roth said his administration has focused on is trying to make sure residents have the ability to raise their children in Hawaii. This perspective shift has led the county to increase the number of planned affordable housing units in its pipeline from roughly 1,200 to 6,600, Roth said.
Most of the hourlong conversation, moderated by Hawaii Community Foundation CEO Micah Kane, zeroed in on the specific challenges of rebuilding Lahaina in a way so that local families can remain in the town that was almost completely devoured by wildfire on Aug. 8. The sewer, electric and water utilities were mostly destroyed by the fire and could take years to rebuild.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced that the county is exploring options to convert short-term vacation rentals for tourists into long-term housing options for displaced locals.
Last week he said county officials met with visitor industry leaders to discuss how to compel the owners of second homes and short-term rentals to donate their units for the purpose of housing Lahaina families who lost their homes in the disaster.
“What the county is seeking is voluntary compliance,” Bissen said.
A lingering barrier, however, is that the value of many rental properties is higher than what many people uprooted from Lahaina can afford, even with federal and state assistance.
“We want everybody from Lahaina to remain in Lahaina,” Bissen said. “We want everybody from Kula to remain in Kula. We want people to be where they are from. We don’t want people selling their land, we don’t want people selling their homes, we don’t want people giving in to opportunists who will try to capitalize on what’s happening to our community.”
Bissen said he supports the idea of a community land trust to help keep Lahaina properties in local hands.
At one point in the panel discussion, Bissen jumped to his feet to publicly thank the mayors of Honolulu, Hawaii and Kauai counties.
His counterparts, who were seated on stage in the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, were some of the first people to call Bissen on the phone to offer help when Maui broke out in multiple fires on Aug. 8. Bissen said he never had to ask his counterparts to send back-up police, fire and emergency management personnel to Maui because they did so immediately.
But Bissen, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, sat back down and asked the audience to give the mayors of Honolulu, the Big Island and Kauai counties a roaring applause in lieu of his remarks, which he was now too emotional to make.
Kawakami was first to jump up and embrace Bissen. Blangiardi and Roth quickly followed suit.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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