Concerns over the potential loss of land in the town began almost immediately.

An affordable housing model with a track record for helping maintain local ownership could have a role in how Lahaina determines its future, if the community wants it.

Community land trusts have been around since the Civil Rights era and one was already operating on Maui, and on a small scale in Lahaina, before the fire.

In the case of Lahaina, the process could potentially put land at risk of being bought up post-disaster into a nonprofit trust in perpetuity, giving the community more control over the rebuilding process.

Land trusts enable the value of land to be separated from the value of the dwelling, making housing more affordable, advocates say.

Today there are more than 225 trusts like this in the country, according to Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy group.

West Maui homes, many destroyed by the Aug. 8 wildfires, are seen between the Lahaina bypass road, at right, and Lahainaluna Road, at left, looking out toward the islands of Lanai in the distance, at left, and Molokai, at right. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Decisions over the rebuilding of homes lost in the Lahaina fire are still to be made, but concerns that building lots could be scooped up by developers have been present from the beginning. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Establishing a community land trust is a massive undertaking with many variables, said Tony Hernandez from Grounded Solutions.

The community, along with a governing board, oversees a 501(c)3 nonprofit trust that purchases land, sometimes at discounted rates, and then repairs the house or builds a new home atop the property.

“You need attorneys, you need banks, you need funders, and elected officials all need to play a role in bringing all of these pieces together,” Hernandez said. “Over the many years, the lack of knowledge about what the community land trust model can do has prevented it from really being used as a tool to fill this gap of affordable housing crisis across the U.S.”

If a community land trust were organized in Lahaina, Hernandez says the community’s voice is paramount. “It starts with the community organizing and having a discussion about what is at the table. What landscape are you working with? What does the community want to see?”

One community land trust, Na Hale O Maui, had 15 properties in Lahaina that were lost in the fire, including one it had bought from Maui County, renovated and sold to a Lahainaluna High School teacher in 2022.

Trusts like Na Hale O Maui convey exclusive use of the building lot to the homeowners on a 99-year renewable lease, usually for a nominal monthly fee. The residents own the home and improvements and have full use of the land after purchase.

Na Hale O Maui has primarily served Maui families falling within 80% to 140% of the area median income, according to executive director Cassandra Abdul, which translates to $84,000 to $148,000 for a single family unit in Maui County.

“We’re basically dealing with the workforce,” she said. “They don’t earn enough to be able to afford market price. And they earn too much to go into low-income housing or get a lot of the other subsidies that are available if they earn 80% or less.”

Community land trusts separate the value of the dwelling from the land value, and place the land into a trust in perpetuity. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Na Hale O Maui, like most nonprofits, competes for private and public funding. In 17 years, it’s received $7 million from Maui County’s affordable housing fund, although it only partially covered purchases.

It also was able to convince developers to sell land below market value.

“But how did we do it? One house at a time,” Abdul said.

Its inventory expanded to 50 units on Maui, and multiple families have since gone on from the trust and bought market-rate homes after building equity in a home.

Abdul believes a community land trust could be a community solution for reconstruction in Lahaina, but it would have to include retail property development whose market rate rentals could subsidize more affordable housing.

Such a plan would be complicated with some 2,000 individual property owners who will inevitably have different ideas of how to rebuild.

Some residents may want to sell their properties at market value — or perhaps at a lower rate for a community land trust to buy — but many will likewise commit to rebuilding themselves.

Additionally, a community land trust is alien to a society raised on land ownership, and equity caps can dissuade potential buyers, Hernandez from Grounded Solutions said. “A lot of folks walk away saying no. If I don’t own the land, I don’t want it.”

Hernandez is frank that a community land trust is not a one-size-fits-all solution and is dependent on the housing stock and the undeveloped land available. There are also risks associated with the development process, from zoning changes and permits to construction materials and labor costs.

But Abdul says a community land trust established with all this in mind might still find a path forward.

“You can always come up with something that fits your program, but it starts with what’s your mission?” she said. “Who are your beneficiaries? What’s your goal?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author