In a town with rental pressures, Lahaina Crossroads has been an affordable foothold.

Floor by floor, all of the tenants would be told to go.

Maui County locator map

In late spring of 2022 the owner of the Lahaina Crossroads Apartments decided to renovate the 20-unit building, paving the way for vacation rentals. On his wife Kathy’s 71st birthday, Aaron Kamaunu learned they had 45 days to leave. She had lived there for 36 years, long before the couple met. He moved in and retired from the Maui Police Department and worked for the last two decades as the building’s caretaker.

Kamaunu, 61, and other tenants staged a demonstration and made headlines, spurring the county to step in and purchase.

But by that time, it was already too late for the Kamaunus.

Aaron Kamaunu’s apartment is among those that are still empty after the county bought the building in December. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

It wasn’t until after Kamaunu was thousands of miles away living with his daughter near Tacoma that he learned the county was trying to purchase his old home. Six months after he moved out, the deal to buy the 20-apartment complex without an elevator was finalized for $10.98 million — the equivalent of about $550,000 per unit.

But all that time, Kamaunu’s top floor apartment, No. 18, sat empty. He wasn’t the only tenant who left before the purchase went through, and today, at least half of the units are still vacant. Residents who stayed say there’s been little communication from their new landlord, Maui County.

For as long as Kamaunu can remember, Maui’s housing crisis has been spiraling out of control.

“This has been going on for decades,” Kamaunu said. “You never actually saw this coming?”

The county must figure out what repairs need to be done before the vacant units at Crossroads can be rented again. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

An affordable housing crisis was identified in a county-commissioned plan as early as 1972, shortly after Lahaina Crossroads was built in 1968. 

Today, Crossroads is one of the last rental complexes that’s within working-class families’ financial reach and walking distance to dozens of employers in a town that’s been overwhelmed by hotels and vacation rentals.

The debate over whether to purchase the building unfolded last year, during a heated election cycle. Some community leaders argued that it was the county’s duty to try to preserve what was left of Maui’s scarce affordable rental stock. During his campaign, Mayor Richard Bissen disagreed with former Mayor Michael Victorino’s decision, questioning what the purchase would mean when similar situations arose in the future.

This year, the Bissen administration’s first annual budget proposes roughly $370,000 for projects on multiple county-owned rental properties, which would cover Lahaina Crossroads. It’s unclear if the previous administration did a thorough inspection of the building, and county officials say they’re still working to figure out how much repairs will cost.

Things are slow going, hampered by eight unfilled positions in the housing division tasked with getting Crossroads up and running.

“I’m just so sad that the county had to spend $11 million on this place,” Etina Hingano, a longtime tenant said, “but I feel like I was worth something.”

‘An Answer To A Prayer’

Hingano, 54, was brought up in a home where you never walked out the door without praying first.

She spent her childhood in Wailuku, where her parents were friends with Kamaunu’s family. They were all members of the same church. Years later, when they both lived in Lahaina, they would run into each other around town while Kamaunu was a bicycle police officer, on patrol. 

Like thousands of other Maui families, Hingano lived in a multigenerational household until everything turned upside down in 2011 when her mother’s Lahaina home burned down. She and her husband crashed with other relatives until they could save up for a place of their own. 

In 2015, she found an ad for Lahaina Crossroads on the internet. She knew the complex — a friend of hers had rented it for $500 a while back. When she went there to check it out, she found out that Kamauna lived there as the building’s caretaker.

“It was an answer to a prayer,” Hingano said. 

Etina Hingano is thankful that the county saved her home from development. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Kamaunu vouched for Hingano with the landlord even though her credit wasn’t great and set up her family by clearing out a unit that had been used as a storage room.

The one-bedroom apartment was cramped for her, her husband, their son and hanai daughter but she and her husband could walk to work. She is a docent at the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, and he is an engineer for a nearby hotel. 

Looking back, she credits Kamaunu as a saving grace and the reason that she still has a roof over her head. 

She pays $1,500 a month in rent, but around her, even studios in West Maui can rent for upward of $2,000. She doesn’t know how families with young children make it work. Her sister and her husband work two jobs and have four kids. They make too much money to qualify for subsidized housing, but it’s been hard to save up to buy a house when they spend so much on rent.

Hingano just has to look around her to for evidence of the gap between family incomes and housing costs. Sometimes she donates cash to the local elementary school for children who run out of lunch money. With her church, she delivers sandwiches and hygiene kits to people sleeping in cars and on the beach.

“I know that people in their offices know that people are struggling,” Hingano said. “But how much struggle do they understand?”

Lahaina Crossroads is a 20-unit complex that had housed mostly older adults and working families. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

‘We’re Lucky’

Hingano had just returned from the monthly two-hour roundtrip to Costco and was about to start unloading her groceries when she saw another Crossroads tenant riding a bicycle through the parking lot. He and his girlfriend, both in their 20s, were moving away to California in two days. He had a friend who might want to rent his apartment, but no one knows when their landlord might take new tenants. 

Hingano knows 30 people who have moved to Missouri, solely because they could buy a small property for the same amount of money that they’d spend on Maui rent for a year.

But in December, one of her friends returned. Kamaunu and his wife came back, around the time the apartment deal closed.

Kathy Kamaunu hated the cold in the Pacific Northwest. Her dream was to live out the rest of her days in Lahaina, under the sun. Kamaunu missed his church and the kupuna he cared for as a home health provider when he wasn’t doing maintenance at Crossroads. So when one of his former clients offered to let them stay in their home, in exchange for caring for the 99-year-old man, the couple booked a flight back to Maui. 

“We’re lucky,” said Aaron Kamaunu, after returning to Maui from Tacoma. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

The man is now in hospice care, and Kamaunu knows the living situation won’t last forever.

He’s hopeful that at some point he’ll find a house where he can use his Veterans Affairs home loan. Or maybe he’ll get a call when he’s reached the top of the waitlist for one of the affordable senior rental complexes or from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

But for now, the Kamaunus are happy living on the ground floor of the old man’s home.

“We’re lucky,” Kamaunu said, sitting next to his wife on a recent morning surrounded by banana trees, tea plants and flowers in the backyard. “We’ve got a roof over our head.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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