Housing and labor shortages are top concerns when the rebuilding phase begins.

Maui will see some relief relatively soon from the aftermath of the Aug. 8 fires but the local economy will not return to normal for years, University of Hawaii economists say in their new quarterly forecast released Friday.

The UH Economic Research Organization, led by Carl Bonham, notes an uptick in tourism in response to the direct pleas from government leaders, but not nearly to the level it was before the fires damaged more than 2,200 structures in the popular visitor destination and killed nearly 100 people in Lahaina.

The forecast shows “sharp and persistent” economic losses on the Valley Isle, especially in West Maui, but little spillover to the rest of the state. It explains how the recovery could slow housing projects on Oahu, for instance, due to the need to prioritize the rebuilding effort on Maui — hampered by the availability of construction workers and materials.

Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

“While we have worked to assemble the best information currently available, and thought hard about what that will mean, this is very much an initial take, which will no doubt evolve often as progress is achieved, plans become firmer, and the extent of future challenges comes into better focus,” the authors say in their forecast.

When it comes to initial relief, especially for tax revenues, the economists highlight the anticipated reopening of West Maui on Oct. 8 under Gov. Josh Green’s plan. Half of the island’s hotel rooms and vacation rentals are located in unaffected resort areas there like Kaanapali.

Still, the forecast only expects visitor arrivals to reach 50% of their 2022 level by the end of this year, and to top 80% of their pre-fire levels by the end of 2024. In the weeks following the fires, visitor spending was down $13 million per day.

“Gains will be gradual thereafter, because of continued temporary housing needs and lingering reluctance of some travelers,” the forecast says. “Tourism businesses will remain under considerable economic pressure.”

Lahaina had been one of the island’s top tourist destinations before the fire, with businesses generating over $70 million a month in accommodations, food services, retail sales and other categories, the report says.

The economists expect most of the tourism recovery to begin in central and south Maui.

The quarterly forecast by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, led by Executive Director Carl Bonham, is the first since the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

As Maui fully enters a rebuilding phase, the report underscores the need for construction workers — roughly 2,000 based on Maui and possibly 500 more commuting from other islands.

“Meeting the demand for qualified construction workers will be an enormous challenge,” the economists say in the forecast. “Some may be recruited from the mainland, but ramping up local training programs will also be essential, and will provide an opportunity for some workers displaced from existing jobs to obtain paid work.”

The jobless rate has soared on Maui since the fires, with unemployment expected to top 11% in the fourth quarter. The forecasts says unemployment is expected to gradually recede, but likely won’t drop below 4% until late 2026.

The fires destroyed about 3% of Maui’s housing stock, the economists say, in a county already experiencing an exceptional housing crisis. Median home prices still top just over $1 million, and less than 10% of Lahaina’s households earn enough to afford to buy a house at that price.

Rentals are hovering around $2,500 per month on Craigslist, almost $500 more than the state median. But the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the average rental in Lahaina was paying $1,700, according to the UHERO report.

“On top of this, the recovery efforts will require a significant population of construction workers, who will also require housing,” the economists wrote. “Without a drastic and rapid deployment of new housing on Maui, the consequence of the Lahaina fire will be to make housing on Maui even more scarce and unaffordable.”

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

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