Displaced fire survivors in Hawaii were built tiny homes — but red tape has stopped them from moving in
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MAUI fire survivors have been offered desperately needed free housing in tiny home communities — but bureaucracy is preventing the homes from being filled.

When a historical set of wildfires burned the Hawaiian city of Lahaina to the ground in August, dozens of people died and thousands of families were left homeless.

Displaced fire survivors in Hawaii were built tiny homes — but red tape has stopped them from moving in

Displaced fire survivors in Hawaii were built tiny homes — but red tape has stopped them from moving inCredit: AP
Hundreds of tiny homes are waiting for residents but still need some local permits to be made available

Hundreds of tiny homes are waiting for residents but still need some local permits to be made availableCredit: FOX 5 VEGAS

With few other possessions than the clothes on their backs, displaced fire survivors turned to emergency services for help.

Officials from the local government immediately began working with national organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross to find housing for the survivors after the flames died down.

At first, most families were placed in nearby hotels that were transformed into shelters for the displaced while some were given longer-term leases in rental properties paid for by the Red Cross.

But both of these solutions were intended to be a temporary answer to the complicated problem of how to quickly provide thousands of affordable homes in one of the most expensive and densely packed housing markets in the country.

Rental prices are higher in Hawaii than in any other US state, with an average monthly cost of $2,418 according to Forbes.

And builders face a notoriously long permit process for new developments that has changed little since the fire made the bad housing situation worse, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

Maui is still suffering six months after the fire

  • 89% of people are still in temporary housing
  • 49% of residents say their health is worse
  • 58% of adult residents lost their jobs
  • 74% have reported a drop in household income

Data according to research by the University of Hawaii

“If you have a large family, there’s simply no housing that’s anywhere near affordable,” Justin Tyndall, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization, told WAPO.

“These problems existed before the fire but are now being highlighted even more. It’s an existential crisis for Maui. Many people have already left and will continue to leave,” he said.

More than 2,000 families or almost 5,000 people are still waiting to be housed in permanent locations in Lahaina, according to the local social services organization Family Life Center which works with the displaced.

So locals and developers immediately began thinking about constructing thousands of tiny homes to fill the need, piggybacking on the national trend to construct smaller homes at lower prices.

Interest from displaced families was sky-high from the beginning, and investors were able to secure funding to complete hundreds of units in multiple locations across Lahaina.

Hawaii wildfires burn historic town of Lahaina to the ground killing at least 6 people and inuring 20

But most of the homes sit empty, blocked by red tape caused by old building regulations that favored the powerful construction industry in the area.

Tiny homes legally fall into a grey zone of housing law in Maui County, local housing advocates explained.

Tiny homes still must meet most of the requirements of typical homes, in addition to getting around issues related to the installation of prefabricated homes in a town that has historically largely prevented such constructions.

Several tiny home communities have already been completed and are waiting for city permits to be made available to at least 500 displaced families, Kamie Davis, a Maui housing consultant specializing in tiny homes, told WAPO.

“If we would have done what we could have done from the very get-go, we would have at least 3,000 homes on the ground today, and we don’t,” Davis said.

“We have maybe a couple hundred. It’s nothing compared to where we should be right now because they choked, they didn’t move forward.”

Maui County has taken some steps to streamline the permit process for small homes, Davis said, but the adaptations have done little to speed up the process.

Nesi and LJ Va’a are two survivors who have been living in a hotel with their three children and elder parent since their home was burned down last summer.

They often drive by the plot of land where the tiny home they were promised is meant to be constructed but has yet to be started.

“Man, if we had this, it would be perfect. The frustrating part is not knowing who to go to. Where’s the answer?” Nesi told WAPO.

The family is anxiously waiting to learn when they will be able to move out of their hotel room and back into a proper home.

“People would move in here today if they could. The 80-plus homes we have could be filled in half an hour. The need is dire,” LJ said.

The wildfire tore through Lahaina last August, burning most of the town to the ground

The wildfire tore through Lahaina last August, burning most of the town to the groundCredit: AP
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