Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Maui fire survivors struggle to find long-term housing, half a year after the blazes

On a sunny weekend afternoon on Maui, the Souza family has given up on getting their kids to nap. Parents Arica and Matthew have their hands full as Silas, 4, and Ayla, 3, greet us at the door excitedly. Ayla is fussing to put on her shiny pink party shoes. Silas is running around looking for his iPad.

The Souzas are living temporarily in Kihei, about a 45-minute drive from Lahaina, where they lost their townhome in the August 8th wildfires. This house belongs to Matthew's grandmother, who is in a hospice facility. Relatives offered the space on a short-term basis so the Souzas could have some stability while they navigate what's next for their burned-out property, and their growing family. The couple is expecting a third child this month.

"We don't even really know how long we're going to be here for," says Matthew.

They expect this house to be put on the market soon and they still don't know what's next for them.

"We've made a plan B, C, D – we're not sure," Arica says.

Six months after the fires in Lahaina and Kula, the Souzas, like thousands of other displaced families, are trying to navigate a complicated disaster recovery process amidst a housing crisis that pre-existed the fires, but has been worsened by them. There isn't enough rental housing to accommodate the need, and now people are trying to figure out how to stay on Maui in difficult circumstances. It's taking a serious emotional toll, on top of the trauma of the fires themselves.

"People aren't going to be able to live here anymore"

Sitting on the porch overlooking lush gardens, and beyond them, the Pacific Ocean, the Souzas say it's hard to talk about the fires because it was such a harrowing experience. Arica escaped, driving through thick black smoke and flames with the kids and two dogs. Matthew was stuck on the highway, watching fire engulf his neighborhood. The whole family has been in counseling ever since.

"We are going through PTSD. We're going through a lot. And not just us, but our kids," says Arica.

Matthew says the disruption of their life in Lahaina has also been hard on the kids.

"Their school went, their favorite beach went," Arica says. "All of these things that were keeping us here are now gone."

She's a science teacher at Lahainaluna High School and Matthew works in construction, installing solar panels. Housing is out of reach for many local workers on Maui, with Hawaii residents facing the highest housing costs in the country, according to a 2023 report from the University of Hawaii. The same report found that in Maui County specifically, out-of-state buyers account for roughly half of all condominium sales, and short-term vacation rentals take up 15% of the housing supply.

The Souzas were only able to afford the purchase of their townhome through a workforce housing program in Lahaina that prohibits them from selling their property for ten years. They still have about six years left before they can sell it.

With sadness in her voice, Arica says, "it was supposed to be a house that would allow us to be able to afford to live in Maui, to afford to be a teacher. And now it's unfortunately turning into quite the opposite."

They're still responsible for paying the mortgage. They say FEMA denied them immediate assistance because they have insurance. But they say their insurance policy only covers about six month's rent and according to officials, rebuilding Lahaina will take at least five years. Arica says, like many local workers, they can't afford to wait it out.

"It's going to be even more out of reach," she says. "People like Matt, who grew up here, who have their roots here, their entire family here, extended included, aren't going to be able to live here anymore."

Not enough time to be a displaced person

Patience is wearing thin as people struggle to find their way through the complicated bureaucracy involved in the clean-up and recovery process – dealing with FEMA, insurance, the Red Cross, and permissions for debris removal that started in mid-January. The housing shortage makes it all the harder, with nearly 5,000 people still living in hotels, worried they might have to move again any day.

"There's not enough time in the day to be a displaced person," says Daisy Andres Ballesteros, whose multi-generational family home got damaged by the fires. "There's not enough time, there's not enough sympathy and there's not enough awareness."

Before the fires, Andres Ballesteros lived together with her husband, son, parents, siblings, and other extended family members in a sprawling white two-story home on a cul-de-sac right in the heart of Lahaina.

The home was bought by the family patriarch, Danilo Andres, in the early 1990s. And since, he's added space to accommodate his three grown children and their families. A place for his "ohana," the Hawaiian word for family.

But the home is adjacent to the burn zone, the property is covered in toxic ash, and the roof sustained damage – it's not livable.

"Finally they allowed us to come in and start cleaning the property," says Danilo Andres, 60.

He and his wife Emelyn have come on a Saturday morning to pull ash-soiled contents out of the house, and haul them to the landfill.

"I don't know how to begin to clean," says Emelyn, overwhelmed by the task.

The house is almost in suspended animation – left as it was when they fled the fires – dishes sitting on the kitchen counter, and daily tasks scribbled on a white board behind a bedroom door.

A burnt smell lingers so Danilo Andres wants to pull out all the carpet and flooring, and re-paint everything. A thick film coats the floor.

"You can see your footprint," he says, walking through the house.

Since the tragic wildfires, the couple has been living at a hotel in Lahaina with temporary housing assistance from the Red Cross. The rest of his family is scattered around the island – living in limbo. Now they mostly gather at the house to clean.

Daisy Andres Ballesteros and her parents have been hearing from the Red Cross that they may have to move soon – numerous people NPR spoke with said they'd been shuffled around between different hotels given the unstable housing circumstances.

"Literally at this time of the month, we're at the part where I don't know where I'm going to be next week," says 32-year-old Andres Ballesteros.

It would be her third move since August. Her sister's family has already moved five times due to the housing crunch.

Andres Ballesteros says she's watched friends make the difficult decision to leave Maui altogether amid the disruption. She says it feels forever changed.

"I miss my hometown."

Local officials are well aware the upheaval has been hard on the community.

"I think six months in, our biggest challenge is the mental health and stability of our residents," Maui Mayor Richard Bissen tells NPR.

The Red Cross is winding down its housing program, as FEMA works with the state to encourage more short-term rental property owners on Maui to lease long-term to displaced fire victims. The government will cover rent and, in exchange, owners get property tax breaks.

But officials have expressed frustration at how many still aren't doing so. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has threatened to impose a moratorium on short-term vacation rentals by March 1st if housing needs for fire victims aren't met.

"What people want and need and what we desire for them is safe, stable, secure housing," Bissen says. "Of course, we can't build it as quickly as we can rent it, which is why the strategy was to go right to the existing inventory."

In the absence of stable housing, a focus on support

It can't happen soon enough, says Keaka Mitchell. He's with the state health department's Kōkua Lahaina Rising – a task force formed to address medical and behavioral health in the aftermath of the fires.

"Without housing, none of our residents of Lahaina that has been displaced can put their minds to rest," Mitchell says.

With the ongoing housing stress, Mitchell's group is looking for ways to ease the mental health burden on fire survivors, including art therapy.

"In Hawaii itself, art is a big part of our lives, a simple thing as coming together in singing. Or singing for someone is a way of healing," says Mitchell.

At the Royal Lahaina Resort, where the only residents these days are fire victims, educator Kilihune Ka'aihue leads a hula class that the health department is offering in partnership with the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC). Kids are scattered on a mat, overlooking the Pacific Ocean while they play pu`ili, Hawaiian instruments that look like drumsticks.

"We've set up a program beautifully and aptly named for cahuilla, which is translated into 'foundations' to help find resiliency through the arts for our community," says MACC Arts educator Hoku Pavao.

They offer scheduled classes like this one, along with yoga, meditation, and music. Pavao says they also welcome displaced families to just drop by.

"Sometimes they just want to come and talk," she says. "So we just hold space."

She's observed that ever since the fires, there's a pervasive feeling of wandering and being lost. Here people can find emotional anchoring.

"They felt almost afloat and had no ground because of housing, because of loss, because of a multitude of reasons,"says Pavao.

Another non-profit, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is trying to help people with housing and other problems arising from the disaster with a one-stop recovery center operating out of a strip mall.

Hawaiian music plays softly in the waiting area, and stations are set up with government agencies, lawyers, counselors and people to help with issues related to jobs and housing.

"For example, if your FEMA application that you submitted got denied, you come over here, we'll help you figure out why it got denied and fix it and appeal it," says CEO Kuhio Lewis.

They've served some 4000 families. Lewis says the need is overwhelming.

"Hawaii has never faced, not in my lifetime or not in maybe even the generation before me's lifetime, a disaster of this magnitude," he says.

Lewis is worried the recovery and rebuilding will just be too much to bear for some locals.

The Souzas may be among them. Back at the house, Arica and Matthew say they fear they're nearing their breaking point.

They're torn between starting fresh on the mainland, and staying here – where they have deep ties.

"I don't want to leave Maui. That's not what I want. But I think it's what we need to do," says Arica.

"It's not about me, it's about my kids," Matthew says. "Right now, what's better for the kids, I believe, is to do the move."

Whatever they decide, they're clinging to the new life coming into their family.

"This baby we keep calling our blessing of hope," says Arica. "It's really such a blessing that we were pregnant before because it's something that's gotten us through all this trauma." [Copyright 2024 NPR]

Why you can trust KUOW