In Hawaii, concerns over ‘climate gentrification’ rise after devastating Maui fires

Aug 17, 2023, 9:06 PM

FILE - Homes consumed in recent wildfires are seen in Lahaina, Hawaii, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. Wi...

FILE - Homes consumed in recent wildfires are seen in Lahaina, Hawaii, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. With a housing crisis that has priced out many Native Hawaiians as well as families that have been there for decades, concerns are rising that Maui could become the latest example of “climate gentrification,” when it becomes harder for local people to afford housing in safer areas after a climate-amped disaster. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Kim Cuevas-Reyes, a 38-year-old cellphone store owner, snuck into Lahaina last Friday to see the remnants of her home with her own eyes. She took backroads and walked. What she saw stunned her.

“When you step into the house, it’s like an inch or two of ash. There is nothing,” she said, adding that she hopes to stay and rebuild her home and destroyed business and is in touch with the insurance company.

More than 3,000 buildings in Lahaina were damaged by fire, smoke or both. Insured property losses alone already total some $3.2 billion, according to Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling firm.

With a housing crisis that has priced out many Native Hawaiians as well as families that have been there for decades, concerns are rising that the state could become the latest example of “climate gentrification,” when it becomes harder for local people to afford housing in safer areas after a climate-amped disaster.

It’s a term Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of sustainable real estate and urban planning at Tulane University School of Architecture, first started lecturing about in 2013 after he noticed changes in housing markets following extreme weather events.

Jennifer Gray Thompson is CEO of After the Fire USA, a wildfire recovery and resiliency organization in the western U.S., and worked for Sonoma County during the destructive Tubbs Fire in October 2017. Thompson said Maui is one of the “scariest opportunities for gentrification” that she’s seen because of “the very high land values and the intense level of trauma and the people who are unscrupulous who will come in to try to take advantage of that.”

Thompson predicted potential developers and investors will research who has mortgages and said Maui residents should expect cold calls. “You won’t be able to go to a grocery store without a flyer attached to your car,” she said.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday his state attorney general will draft a moratorium on the sale of damaged properties in Lahaina, to protect local landowners from being “victimized” by opportunistic buyers as Maui rebuilds.

Thompson said she supports that “wholeheartedly.” But she acknowledged some people won’t be able to afford to rebuild and will want to sell their land.

While one extreme weather event cannot be entirely blamed on climate change, experts say storms, fires and floods, which are becoming more damaging in a warming world, help make Hawaii one of the riskiest states in the country. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, which are not related to climate change, also add to this risk.

According to an analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency records by The Associated Press, there were as many federally declared disaster wildfires this month as in the 50 years between 1953 and 2003. Additionally, burned area in Hawaii increased more than fivefold since the 1980s, according to figures from the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Justin Tyndall, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, explained that Hawaii is the most expensive state to rent or own a home in the U.S. “by a considerable margin” with a median price single family home on Maui exceeding $1 million. “Even in the condominium market on Maui, the median price is close to $900,000, so there’s really no affordable options throughout all out of the state,” he explained.

Until now, when homeowners in Hawaii have considered climate change, Tyndall said, it’s been coastal erosion, sea level rise and hurricanes, mainly. “Wildfire was something that was on people’s radars. … But obviously the extensive damage, most people didn’t predict,” he said. Fire needs to be taken more seriously now, he said.

Maui has stringent affordable housing requirements for new multifamily construction, Tyndall said. But the practical effect has been that very little housing gets built. So new supply is low, both for affordable housing and rentals at market rate, “which just makes housing more expensive for everyone,” he said.

Tyndall said the Native Hawaiian community has been hit the hardest by the housing crisis and there has been a “huge exodus” due to this lack of affordable housing.

On Wednesday, the Indigenous-led NDN Collective issued a statement supporting community-led rebuilding for Lahaina, “in ways that center the values, ancestral connections to land and water, and Indigenous knowledge systems of the kānaka ʻōiwi, Native Hawaiian people.”

After using the term in lectures, Keenan went on to popularize the concept of climate gentrification as a lecturer at Harvard University in 2018 and published a study that focused on Miami, where Black communities have historically lived at higher elevations because the wealthy wanted to live close to the beach. Now that seas are rising and higher ground is becoming more valuable, that’s leading to disruption and displacement, Keenan said.

As with any gentrification, some people do see benefits.

“If you own a home, it’s great — the value of your home goes up. But if you’re a renter or a small business, your rent may go up to the extent that you become displaced over time,” Keenan said.

With wildfires, areas that don’t burn become more desirable, changing cost of living considerably. The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, was an example of this as people moved down into the Central Valley to Chico where there is far less risk of wildfire, Keenan added.

“It led to massive displacement; rental costs increased significantly, a really huge shift. Everything from the school district to their transit system,” he said.

Other examples are New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and various cities in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, where many people could not afford to come back.

“The rebuilding of these spaces look very different from the types of communities that were living there before and what made them unique and special to begin with,” said Santina Contreras, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

With respect to Maui, Contreras said there are many reasons to be concerned about climate gentrification, given the island’s natural beauty, history of development, high tourism demand and opportunity to build new hotels.

Not everyone finds the concept useful, though.

Katharine Mach, professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, cautioned against immediately labelling a situation climate gentrification, because that makes it difficult to tease out the other factors such as decades of discrimination, racism and land use changes.

Climate change is overlaid on top of inequities in how we manage flooding or rebuild after fire, she said. “You can call that climate gentrification, but you could also say it’s inequity in how we manage disasters in the United States.”


Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, and Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

National News

FILE - Protesters shout before a speaking engagement by Ben Shapiro on the campus of the University...

Associated Press

Few Americans say conservatives can speak freely on college campuses, AP-NORC/UChicago poll shows

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans view college campuses as far friendlier to liberals than to conservatives when it comes to free speech, with adults across the political spectrum seeing less tolerance for those on the right, according to a new poll. Overall, 47% of adults say liberals have “a lot” of freedom to express their views […]

3 hours ago

Fencer Kirsten Hawkes poses for a portrait at a fencing studio Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in San Dieg...

Associated Press

Forced kiss claim leads to ‘helplessness’ for accuser who turned to Olympics abuse-fighting agency

DENVER (AP) — When Kirsten Hawkes, a one-time elite fencer, reached out to her childhood coach for advice about starting her own fencing club, their meeting turned awkward right away. It began, she said, with an unwanted kiss on the lips when the two met at a bar during a fencing tournament in Minneapolis last […]

4 hours ago

FILE - President Joe Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom wait for reporters to leave the room du...

Associated Press

California governor to name Laphonza Butler, former Kamala Harris adviser, to Feinstein Senate seat

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom will name Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a spokesman in his office said Sunday. In choosing Butler, Newsom fulfilled his pledge to appoint a Black woman […]

5 hours ago

FILE - Former President Donald Trump speaks in Clinton Township, Mich., Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. ...

Associated Press

Donald Trump says he will be in courtroom for New York trial scrutinizing his business practices

NEW YORK (AP) — With control over some of his most prized real estate holdings in jeopardy, former President Donald Trump says he will make a rare, voluntary trip to court Monday for the start of a civil trial in a lawsuit that has already resulted in a judge ruling that he committed fraud in […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Arizona’s biggest city has driest monsoon season since weather service began record-keeping in 1895

PHOENIX (AP) — After a summer of extreme heat, Arizona’s most populous city is in the record books again. This time Phoenix is notching a record for dry heat. The National Weather Service said the monsoon season this year in the arid Southwest dropped only 0.15 inches (.38 centimeters) of rainfall from June 15 to […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

A woman who fled the Maui wildfire on foot has died after weeks in a hospital burn unit

HONOLULU (AP) — A woman who escaped a wildfire that destroyed Hawaii community by running through a burning field has died after spending more than seven weeks in a hospital burn unit. Laurie Allen died Friday at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu, according to a gofundme page set up for her and her husband, Perry […]

11 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

In Hawaii, concerns over ‘climate gentrification’ rise after devastating Maui fires