An exodus of lava evacuees is straining East Hawaii’s limited housing supply, forcing disaster victims to compete for long-term shelter in areas considered safe from hazardous volcanic emissions.
And those safe zones, and the housing they offer, are shrinking.
The 5-mile-high ash plume that erupted from Kilauea volcano Thursday joined deadly sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gasses that have been drifting over various windward communities since lava outbreaks started May 3.
The odor of rotten eggs has reached northward 50 miles to Honokaa and beyond, while ash has now started falling to the far south, impacting the Kau District towns of Pahala and Naalehu.
Worsening conditions have prompted evacuees to contemplate their long-term housing options.
“It will be months before we’re back in our home, and we might not ever live there again,” Mary Rose Love said of the Kalapana Seaview Estates residence and vacation rental she chose to leave after gas emissions miles away caused her to suffer unusual and painful migraine headaches.
That was May 6, three days after the first activity started in Leilani Estates.
“It’s uninhabitable – where you cannot stay,” Love said after she and fiancé Dennis Gonzales wore masks while briefly visiting their planned retirement home Thursday.
“We’ve been staying with friends, and we’ve been pursuing every single rental that is possible. It’s very difficult (finding something),” she said, noting several friends are each housing multiple evacuees.
Love, who works as a sign-language interpreter for official eruption announcements, said she and Gonzales are professionals, giving them more means than some displaced residents.
“Every place we checked into there was so many people asking at the same time,” she said. “We are very fortunate to get something that wasn’t even on the market yet.”
Connections through friends led to the home, which the owner was planning to sell, but decided to rent for a lower-than-market price, she said of the North Hilo property.
“There’s so many of us,” Love said of fellow evacuees now needing new housing, adding 500 people are staying in and around the Pahoa shelter where she’s been helping convey messages for the hearing-impaired. Love said she’s working to get a video phone installed at the shelter so people can stop returning home solely to use their own video phone, risking personal safety.
The mass evacuations have created an “intense” rental market, said Nancy Cabral, owner of Coldwell Banker Day-Lum Properties in Hilo.
“If I only have one vacancy, that’s intense,” said Cabral, whose company manages about 650 residential rental properties.
“A lot of people are coming in looking to rent something,” she said, adding a few houses will become vacant next month, but most are already reserved.
Cabral suggested that fee-simple home sales will be the next housing sector affected by the eruption, followed by development of some of the thousands of vacant lots located in the Puna and Hilo districts.
“I think long-term we’ll have a major shortage of homes in East Hawaii,” she said.
“There is a danger that unscrupulous landlords will raise rents. The governor or the mayor needs to proclaim a rent freeze.” — Honokaa attorney Barbara Franklin
To help lessen that anticipated housing crunch, Cabral wants Hawaii County building officials to expedite the permitting of standardized package homes and allow people to rent out suitable living space in their dwelling or on their property.
The housing market is based on the economic reality of supply and demand, said realtor Hank Correa, owner of Hank Correa Realty in Hilo.
“Even before this (eruption started), inventory was low. We’ve been in a real strong market, both in sales and rentals,” he said.
Correa feels the biggest impact will start occurring around the three-month mark, should the eruption last that long.
“I think we’ll have a lack of housing.” Correa said.
Heather Hedenschau, principal broker at Big Island Brokers, said she has three clients whose homes were burned and are awaiting receipt of insurance checks they plan to spend on replacement dwellings within Hawaiian Paradise Park, located several miles from the eruption zone.
“I think property values in the unaffected areas are going to go up as the people move (away from the lava activity),” Hedenschau said.
Some fear prices may rise too much, with people looking to cash in on the increased demand for housing.
“With residents now finding other places to stay, there is a danger that unscrupulous landlords will raise rents. The governor or the mayor needs to proclaim a rent freeze like they did for the Pahoa flow a few years ago,” Barbara Franklin, a Honokaa attorney specializing in real property law, wrote in an email to Civil Beat.
In a follow-up interview, Franklin suggested it’s still a little premature for rent caps, however.
“People aren’t ready to make the decision that they’re not going to go home,” she said.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org