Advocates say the decision by some landlords to oust renters risks leaving more people homeless in an already tight housing market.
When wildfires destroyed Lahaina on Aug. 8, Miranda Boam lost both of her jobs, her favorite hangout spots and the town she adores.
But while she didn’t lose her Lahaina apartment to the blaze, she’s about to be displaced for another reason.
Boam and dozens of other tenants around Maui have received 45-day notices to vacate — many coming from landlords who say they need their properties back to house family members whose homes were destroyed in the fires.
Alan Lloyd, an organizer with the Maui Tenants Association, a project of Hawaii Workers Center, said over the last week, the group’s hotline has received 10 to 15 calls per day from renters who say they’ve received notices to vacate.
Lloyd calls it a second wave of people about to be uprooted from their homes after the fire left thousands homeless in an already tight housing market.
“It’s really an eviction storm,” he said. “It’s the worst of the worst, because it puts everyone in crisis.”
A 45-day notice sent to a renter on a month-to-month lease isn’t technically an eviction. And tenants do have some recourse.
They can look online to see if their landlord has listed their unit for rent, which would indicate the property owner isn’t really using it for a family member, Lloyd said. In that case, the tenant could write a letter contesting the notice to vacate.
‘Shell Shocked And So Numb’
But many renters won’t go up against property owners or take them to court because they may need to use the landlord as a reference to get a new rental, or they may simply want to avoid the hassle of a legal battle, he said.
Boam’s landlord, Liz Straka, told tenants they have to go because her sister lost her home and needs a place to live with her two dogs, according to a copy of the 45-day notice to vacate letter provided to Civil Beat.
Straka did not respond to calls and texts seeking comment.
Boam, 28, who shares the rental property with two other people, noted that people displaced by the fire should be eligible for assistance that Boam and her roommates don’t qualify for because their home didn’t burn down.
The home, adjacent to Napili Park on Pualu Loop, is north of the area most impacted by the fires.
Boam worked at Reef Dancer, an underwater tour company, and Choice Health Bar, a vegan restaurant — which she said both perished in the flames.
“I do feel bad if it’s true and her sister lost her home, but at the same time, you’re going to make three people homeless in order to house one person,” she said, “and that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
Boam said finding a rent comparable to the $1,200 a month she’s been paying will be difficult, especially a unit that is pet friendly.
She’s starting to imagine that once the 45-day notice expires, she’ll have to move into a large tent with her two cats, Dobby and Cali.
“It’s such a weird concept when you’re almost planning for homelessness,” she said. “There’s just no help out there for you because you’re not one of the people who lost their house to the fire.”
“In my life right now, my landlord is my fire,” she said.
Landlords can still kick tenants out, though, in order to house immediate family members at their property, Lloyd said. But while many landlords are using that excuse, he thinks they may have an ulterior motive of raising rents.
Lloyd said he saw the same phenomenon happening during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was a moratorium on evictions. Landlords would still kick out their tenants with the justification that they were moving in family members.
Robert Collier, 55, who works operating a ferry between Maui and Lanai, said he also received a 45-day notice to leave his unit at 70 Pualu Loop in Lahaina.
The notice, issued by property management company Quam Properties Hawaii, says Collier must leave before Oct. 8 but doesn’t give a reason.
Four other people also live in the house, he said.
Kate Grumet, of Lahaina-based Quam Properties, said the owners purchased the house with tenants in place in July and had planned to move in.
The company had prepared notices to vacate but decided to wait a few weeks after the fire occurred.
She said the company had warned tenants the notices would be coming and two of them already found replacement housing.
The property owners, who live on the mainland, need to renovate soon because the house is in poor condition and could pose fire hazards, she said.
“It’s certainly not our intention to cause any additional hardship, but certain things have to be done,” she said.
Update: This story has been updated with a response by Quam Properties.
The notice compounded Collier’s problem after he lost his Lahaina Harbor business with two boats and all his dive gear.
“I’m so shell shocked and so numb with everything else that I’ve lost,” said Collier. “You’re just getting hit by so many different things in so many different ways, and what do you do?”
Collier said he’s still working part time for the ferry, which is now running service to Lanai out of Maalaea Harbor, but he lost his ability to earn extra income through his other business doing underwater repair work.
“Right now studios are going for $3,000 a month in Lahaina,” he said. “And I have a 1-year-old German shepard, so it makes it even more difficult to find a place.”
Collier could technically fight the property management company because it didn’t provide a legitimate reason for kicking him out. But he said he knows the issue will recur once the eviction moratorium expires, and he wants stable housing.
More than a third of households on Maui spend 30% or more of their income on housing, which is considered cost-burdened, according to a 2019 study by SMS Research and Marketing Services. Twenty-two percent of households were also crowded or doubled-up, which is a sign of a pent-up demand for housing, according to the study.
‘Suffering From Way Before The Fires’
Hundreds of people on Maui who were homeless before the wildfires will also have a more difficult time transitioning to permanent housing in the wake of the disaster, advocates say.
The wind-fanned flames that spread rapidly through Lahaina on Aug. 8 burned 2,200 structures, about 1,500 of which were residential, leaving hundreds more families homeless. Nineteen homes were also destroyed by fires in Upcountry and Kula.
Family Life Center, an organization working with homeless populations on Maui, was in the middle of finalizing leases for five homeless families in Kahului and Wailuku before the fires, said Maude Cumming, executive director of the organization. But post-disaster, landlords canceled the leasing process because they said they needed to use the units for themselves or family members.
The organization has other properties it could utilize for housing but hadn’t finalized the process of getting them insured, and now, in the wake of the fires, it’s more difficult to get insurance, Cumming said.
In the meantime, many families will face longer stays in shelters while they wait for housing to become available. Many still are living in tents or in the elements while they wait, said Chaplain Leah Smith, CEO of Chaplain Ministries of Maui, which runs a program that helps find housing for clients on Medicaid.
“At the end of the day, our clients, even though they were already homeless prior to the fires in Lahaina, they’re still going to be homeless,” she said, “even after everybody gets placed and we rebuild.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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