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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Nina Lakhani in West Maui

First came the Maui wildfires. Now come the land grabs: ‘Who owns the land is key to Lahaina’s future’

Two tree trunks with cityscape and mountains in back
Fire damage in Lahaina, Hawaii, on 13 August 2023. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Mere days after wildfires tore through Maui last August and leveled the historic town of Lahaina, community organizers warned that longtime residents were vulnerable to predatory land grabs.

And they were right. As search and rescue teams painstakingly combed through the scorched ruins, traumatized survivors began receiving texts, voice messages, and letters from speculators and realtors offering to buy their burnt-out homes.

“Week one, we knew that whatever happened we would have to protect the land because they would be coming for it,” said Autumn Ness, who moved to Maui from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which led to mass displacement.

The Lahaina fire killed 100 people and razed 1,200 buildings, mostly residential properties, displacing around 11,000 residents, mostly working-class families. The trauma was compounded by a stark financial reality: most homeowners were underinsured, and many still had mortgages to pay on houses that would take several years to rebuild.

Some survivors lost their homes and jobs, and found themselves stuck in hotels unable to find affordable long-term rentals as tourists returned to the island. The Red Cross and Fema asked survivors whether they’d consider moving off island, which many found deeply offensive and insensitive.

But desperate people do desperate things – which is why investors often swoop in after major disasters like fires and hurricanes. Communities end up excluded from reconstruction plans, and old residents get priced out as neighborhoods are gentrified or transformed in some other irrevocable way.

In Maui, some quick thinking by local advocates inspired the Lahaina Community Land Trust (LCLT), a new grassroots initiative to boost affordable housing and preserve the unique character of the historic town by disrupting the post-disaster market forces.

“This community has been on the defensive for generations. The fire changed that, and the land trust is about us going on the offensive against the disaster capitalists,” said Ness.

Community land trusts (CLT) are non-profit organizations that act as long-term stewards for affordable housing, green projects, cultural and civic spaces, and commercial properties – in response to market and structural inequities that have failed to meet their needs.

In Maui, the trust’s stated goal is to “keep Lahaina lands in Lahaina hands”. To do this, they must raise enough capital – through grants and donations – to provide cash-strapped survivors an alternative to the circling developers offering quick but often low prices for plots that will likely end up as vacation rentals or second homes for non-Hawaiians. (According to one analysis, 30% of the properties sold in Paradise, California, after the catastrophic Camp fire went for less than their assessed value.)

Ideally, they want no one with roots in Lahaina to be forcibly displaced. Realistically, some survivors will likely decide to sell because they feel too traumatized or too old to rebuild and return – while others may need to move away for work. If so, the trust would try connecting the seller to a local buyer with strong ties to the town – or acquire the land themselves so the community has a say in its future.

The priority will be acquiring land for affordable housing and small, locally owned businesses, as well as targeting cultural and historical plots for conservation and restoration. This includes some ecologically important sites from when Lahaina was capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which could help make the town more climate resilient.

“The land trust is about preserving the character of the community … We need to support multi-generational lineal descendants of Lahaina against bidding wars and get culturally important parcels into the right hands,” said Tamara Paltin, a West Maui county council member and president of the LCLT.

“As we rebuild, who owns the land is key to Lahaina’s future. If we can save one property, it’s worth it.”

In the Hawaiian worldview, there is a reciprocal and familial relationship between people and land. Āina, the Hawaiian word for land, means “that which feeds”. According to one old saying, “the land is chief, the people are its servants.”

“The Āina is our family. It’s what connects us to our culture,” said Mikey Burke, whose family lost their home in the fire. In January, as they struggled to deal with insurance claims and mortgage repayments, her husband Rob received a text message from an unknown number:

“Good morning! Would you consider selling the property for a strong no inspections AS IS offer? I have a client that is ready to write you an offer.”

“The cold calls have been so upsetting,” said Burke, a LCLT member. “We are learning and doing at the same time because we can’t afford to wait, even though many of us are still dealing with multiple crises and trauma. The land grabs are already starting.”

As many as 30 residential properties in the burn zone are thought to have changed hands, though it’s likely some were linked to existing probate issues.

The community land trust model has been around for a century or so, gaining popularity in the US among civil rights groups and Black farmers in the 1960s. Since then, around 300 have sprung up in towns, cities and Native communities. In Houston, arguably the country’s most ambitious community land trust to date was created after Hurricane Harvey in 2019 exacerbated the city’s affordable housing crisis that was mostly affecting low-income people of color.

While most trusts are primarily concerned with affordable housing or conservation, the LCLT wants to merge both with community building and economic development – a circular model inspired by traditional Hawaiian values and governance.

“There are so many competing interests for Lahaina. We’re committed to maintaining the old character, which means respecting its ancient Hawaiian roots but also the other ethnic groups whose blood sweat and tears flowed into Lahaina, and whose roots go back generations,” said Carolyn Auweloa, vice-president and secretary of the LCLT.

More than a third of Lahaina’s population were south-east Asian – mostly Filipino – Japanese and Chinese, while just over 10% were Latino and Native Hawaiian.

The trust is also exploring hybrid or shared equity options that could allow financially stressed residents to buy back their plot within 10 years, and another that would enable homeowners who cannot rebuild to sell the lease but retain the land title.

So far, many survivors seem grateful for a community-led initiative concerned about the town’s long-term future, while they deal with immediate challenges.

But not everyone agrees, including Lahaina elder Ke’eamoku Kapu, who ran the Maui Cultural and Research Center, which was destroyed in the fire. “The community land trust is a double-edged sword which could undermine the bigger question of legitimate ownership,” said Kapu, who supports Native Hawaiians making legal claims for their ancestral land. “I am a strong advocate of honoring land titles … The land trust feels like a big gamble.”

In the end, the trust’s success will depend on raising enough money, and being able to overcome cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles and powerful competing interests. In Houston, the city last year slashed financial support and the trust’s plans have faltered.

“It feels like David against the biggest Goliath, and we don’t know how we’re going to raise $200m, but we’re going to try and protect every square foot we can,” said Auweloa. “We’re in this to stop our people being further displaced, and change the trajectory of our town and community.”

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