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Hawaii governor warns developers against predatory land buying in devastated Lahaina

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A general view shows damage in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023. 

Mike Blake | Reuters

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green is warning developers from the mainland United States and around the world not to buy up land in the wake of catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed the historic town of Lahaina.

Green said in a video statement Tuesday said the Hawaii state government is considering acquiring land in Lahaina “to protect it for our local people so it’s not stolen by people on the mainland” U.S.

The wildfires have devastated Lahaina, a town in Maui of about 13,000 people. At least 106 people had died in the blaze as of Tuesday and thousands more are homeless. The inferno destroyed more than 2,700 structures at an estimated value of $5.6 billion, according to the governor.

The blaze is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than century and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii state history.

Green said last week that Lahaina will have to be completely rebuilt, a process that will take years. In the meantime, residents are worried that outside developers will swoop in to buy up the valuable land once the reconstruction process starts.

Lahaina carries deep historical significance for Hawaii’s native culture. The town was the capital of Hawaii in the early 19th century when the islands were an independent kingdom. The seat of government moved to Honolulu in 1850, several decades before the U.S. annexed the islands in 1898.

“We will be making sure that we do all that we can to prevent that land from falling into hands of people from the outside. It’s not easy to do in some cases,” Green said. “You can be sure I will not be allowing anyone to build or rezone or do anything of that sort if they’ve taken advantage of anyone here.”

Green said Monday that he has asked the state attorney general to explore options for placing a moratorium on sales of properties that have been damaged or destroyed during the wildfires.

Governor of Hawaii Josh Green speaks during a press conference about the destruction of historic Lahaina and the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Wailuku, Hawaii on August 12, 2023.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The governor said in his Tuesday video that he also ordered the attorney general to embed lawyers at response centers to provide free legal advice to Lahaina residents to make sure they are not taken advantage of by people who make offers to buy their land in the wake of the blaze.

Maui is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state, with nearly 3 million visitors spending about $5.7 billion on the island in 2022. But residents of the island struggled with a high cost of living and a housing shortage long before the wildfires struck.

Inventory for single-family home sales in Maui was down nearly 40% in July compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from the Realtors Association of Maui. The median price for a single family home in Lahaina was $1.3 million in July before the wildfires, according to the data.

Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the U.S. The state had the fourth highest homelessness rate in the nation in 2022, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Green said Tuesday more than 500 hotel rooms and 435 donated rentals are available to temporarily house people as Lahaina rebuilds. Airbnb will also provide more than 1,000 units, the governor said.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii last week, which unlocked emergency assistance for the island. The assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repair and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.



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