Hawaii lawmakers open new legislative session with eyes on wildfire prevention and housing

Jan 17, 2024, 5:55 PM

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii lawmakers on Wednesday opened a new session of the state Legislature vowing to address glaring problems laid bare by the deadly wildfire that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina in August: the threat posed by wildfires and the lack of affordable housing.

Lahaina is still in ruins as the cleanup proceeds slowly and methodically nearly six months after the blaze killed 100 people. Thousands of displaced residents continue to live in hotel rooms paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because they can’t find places to rent — even with FEMA rental subsidies. West Maui’s tight housing market, which is heavily populated by expensive vacation rentals, is one reason.

Lawmakers said solutions to these problems are badly needed for Maui but would also help communities across the state.

Fire mitigation would a top Senate priority, Senate President Ron Kouchi, a Democrat, said.

“And as we go forward, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen on any other island,” Kouchi said about the Lahaina fire in speech on the Senate floor.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, spoke of “centering Hawaii” by putting the needs and well-being of Maui’s and Lahaina’s people first.

Proposals to prioritize water use for affordable housing would be one way to do this, Saiki told reporters. He also wants the Legislature to take action to limit vacation rentals, which a University of Hawaii analysis said accounts for 15% of Maui’s housing supply and 40% of Lahaina’s.

“It’s really, really important for the state government, for the Legislature to take on short-term rentals head-on, because I don’t know if the counties are really able to do that,” Saiki said. “A couple of them have tried over the years and haven’t been too successful.”

The House’s bipartisan wildfire bill package includes legislation that would give the counties explicit authority to phase out short-term rentals, said Rep. Nadine Nakamura, the House majority leader.

Sen. Troy Hashimoto, a Democrat who represents central Maui on the other side of the West Maui Mountains from Lahaina, said the Legislature needs to work on where residents will live after FEMA housing aid ends in February 2025.

“We’ve got to stay laser-focused on that, getting the resources in that area. And we need to show progress,” Hashimoto said.

Protesters from the group Lahaina Strong, who have been camping out in front of Lahaina’s beachfront hotels on Kaanapali Beach to demand housing, held a march in Honolulu and a rally at the Capitol to remind lawmakers of their needs.

“There are still over 5,000 Lahaina fire victims displaced and sheltering in hotels,” said Jordan Ruidas, one of the organizers who flew over to Oahu for the demonstration. “The concept of home remains a distant dream.”

Ruidas said Lahaina Strong wants the county to revoke exemptions it has given to 2,500 vacation-rental properties in West Maui that don’t have permits to be rented for less than 30 days at a time. The group is also asking for protections against rent increases and evictions and for mortgage payments for homes lost in the fire to be deferred.

Hashimoto said lawmakers know Lahaina Strong wants stable housing for the people of Lahaina.

“We’re listening, and we know that that’s the issue,” Hashimoto said.

Democrats have overwhelming majorities at the Legislature, controlling 45 out of 51 seats in the House and 23 out of 25 seats in the Senate.

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Hawaii lawmakers open new legislative session with eyes on wildfire prevention and housing