Maui wildfire victims fear land grabs threaten Hawaiian culture

KANAPALI, Hawaii, Aug 22 (Reuters) – After wildfires destroyed the Maui home where five generations of her family had lived, Deborah Loeffler felt she couldn’t lose much, the same day a son died on the U.S. mainland.

Grieving and distraught, Loeffler soon became inundated with unsolicited e-mails offering to sell the Lahaina Beachfront plot on Maui where his grandfather had built a teal-green log home in the 1940s.

“We felt like vultures were hunting us,” said Loeffler, 69, a retired flight attendant, sitting in a brown-carpeted hotel room in Maui where she was evacuated. in bed.

Buyers relocating to distressed property after the 2018 and 2022 wildfires in places like Paradise, California or northern New Mexico will be familiar with his experience.

Loeffler fears that expropriating land on Maui will result in the loss of Hawaiian culture.

In Hawaii, a lack of affordable housing caused by the fires hastened the search for places where multi-generational families from the US state could live. According to U.S. Census data, the population of Native Hawaiians in the state has declined more than the number living on the U.S. mainland over the past decade.

Before Lahaina was ravaged by the deadliest U.S. wildfires in a century, its median home price was $1.1 million, three times the national average, according to real estate site Zillow.

In Maui County, about 75% of residents are Asian, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or mixed race, and the median household income is $88,000, just 24% above the U.S. average, according to Census reports.

Affordable housing advocates such as the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) are calling for a moratorium on foreclosures.

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HAPA works with the state government to document unsolicited purchase offers in Lahaina, the early 19th-century capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii before its 1893 U.S.-backed coup.

Hawaii’s Office of Consumer Protection warned people about offering below-market offers. The office declined to comment on how many such offers have been announced.

“We’re going to make sure we do everything we can to prevent that land from getting into people’s hands from the outside,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, who proposed banning Lahaina land sales, said at an Aug. 15 press conference. .

Reuters saw two emails sent by EMortgage in Oklahoma City, one linked to a site called Cash Offer USA. The emails claim to represent local buyers looking for sellers, offer all-cash deals and no closing costs for the homes — “no repairs required.” EMortgage did not respond to emails from Reuters seeking comment.

Marlena Tates, a Florida investor who runs a site using the name Cash Offer USA, said her site was different from the one in the email and that she was removing her name so the two were not mistaken.

“At this time we have not received any guidance or made any offers from the property owners in Lahaina,” Tates said in a statement. “I’d like to buy something there, but it hasn’t been delivered to us yet.”

Many longtime families who lost their homes in the Lahaina fire didn’t have insurance because their homes didn’t have mortgages or didn’t meet building codes, said Sterling Higa, director of Hawai’i’s Future Housing, which wants to end the state’s workforce housing shortage. .

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How long residents can hold out against property offers depends on the type of transitional housing they get while they wait to rebuild, Higa said.

“They have to have real support in terms of housing, financial support,” said his wife Higa, who grew up in Lahaina.

Disaster response experts expect temporary housing to be provided through hotel rooms and condos, shifting rentals, mobile home encampments and some families relocating to Honolulu, the state’s largest city.

“Keeping people around and involved in recovery is a good first step to protecting populations,” said Andrew Rumback, an expert on disasters, climate and communities at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Kaliko Baker, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, said the survival of Hawaiian culture is at stake.

“If people buy land and build their own Lahaina, does it include Hawaiian language schools?” Baker said of one such school that burned next to the historic Lahaina Church.

Loeffler, who lives with her husband a few miles from the destroyed home, deleted the email offers she received in disgust. She mourned all that her son Sam and her community had lost unrelated to the Maui fire.

He escaped with his wallet and a book by his late son’s friend. She said she owes her life to the tenant who saw the fire coming and went door to door asking people to evacuate.

Loeffler plans to rebuild his plantation-style family home with insurance money to make Lahaina “look like Lahaina” again. She wants her grandchildren to keep their connection to an island where a Japanese-German-Hawaiian family has lived for nearly a century.

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“I’m not selling it, if I have to live in a tent there I will.”

(This story has been reprinted to fix the date on Dateline)

Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Rachel Nostrant, Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Donna Bryson and Michael Perry

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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