Potential tax liabilities for hosts and evolving housing options are obstacles to participation.

A Maui County pilot program aimed at encouraging people to temporarily open their homes to residents displaced by the wildfires has housed 260 people in its first month.

On Oct. 3, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said the six-month program would pay up to $1,500 a month to in-state residents and homeowners who shared their homes with survivors.

The Host Housing Support Program, administered by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, pays $375 per sheltered resident with a $1,500 cap per dwelling.

It is open to homeowners and renters alike and covers single-family dwellings, apartments and condo units.

But potential tax liabilities, processing times and the amount offered could prevent more households from participating.

CNHA chief executive officer Kuhio Lewis said the program is intended to ensure that benefits of survivors are not impacted, by paying hosts directly. (Provided: Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement)

More than a month after launch, the program has paid out $178,125 to 86 households sheltering the 260 people, according to Kuhio Lewis, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s CEO.

CNHA found between 25% to 30% of Lahaina’s estimated 6,800 displaced residents had opted to stay with friends or family in lieu of hotels, based on exit survey data collected from their Kakoʻo Maui Resource Hub in Kahului.

Lewis said the program was an attempt to offer financial support directly to those hosts with existing housing arrangements “and that allows the benefits that these survivors are entitled to not be impacted,” he said.

As of Nov. 9 CNHA had received 666 applications, although only 309 were deemed eligible. Of the eligible homes, 223 are being processed for approval. Most applicants are housing two displaced survivors.

“The goal is once we hit that initial number of survivors, to open up the program further for those who might want to take in others,” Lewis said.

Fire victims are being housed on Maui, Oahu, the Big Island and Kauai, he said.

After the survivor and host submit their applications to CNHA, inspectors make an in-person assessment of the home’s livability and conditions. This involves a checklist with questions on sleeping and bathroom arrangements and access to kitchen facilities. It also evaluates the building’s quality or if the residence shows signs of drug use.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen launched the Host Housing Support Program Oct. 3, with the intention of encouraging Hawaii residents to open their homes to displaced survivors from the Maui fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Potential Tax Liability For Hosts

CNHA will periodically return for quality inspections, and the group will provide residents with a questionnaire that assesses their living conditions and also provides updated information about new permanent housing opportunities.

But the program only has three inspectors, who are working to assess the backlog of eligible applicants.

Tyson Miyake, a Maui consultant, opened his Wailuku home to a friend displaced by the fire. In an email response, he described the inspection phase as simple and quick.

He wrote he was happy to help and that the $375 payment from the program would help pay for utilities.

But it is unclear whether the current payment rates or reimbursement limit are helpful. Lewis said there was at least one application that offered to shelter 14 residents — but their host only qualifies for $1,500.

Lewis said he initially requested $500 per sheltered resident, but the program’s funders determined the current rate is feasible for the six-month pilot. Potential backpay will only go back to the month the application was submitted.

Since the payments count as income, a potential tax liability from the state and federal governments may dissuade new host applications or cause withdrawals. Lewis said CNHA is appealing to the state tax office and the Internal Revenue Service to waive those taxes.

Lewis said things are constantly being reassessed. “We’re in a phase of, is this a program that is effective? Are there liabilities that we never thought about? Are there challenges that might come from it? How dependable is this type of arrangement for families?”

So far the program has received $1 million in funding from CNHA, American Red Cross and the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund with a combined $4 million commitment.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency already runs two direct housing programs for Maui fire survivors, intended to supply housing for up to 18 months by contracting with the owners of rental properties.

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

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