Denby Fawcett: Finding 'Dignified Housing' Is A Pipe Dream For Many In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

The current need is most pressing in Lahaina, but the rest of the state is also suffering from a lack of dignified housing.

I was struck by the term “dignified housing” when I received an email from a group called Lahaina Strong.   

Lahaina Strong’s email announced its news conference Friday at Kaanapali Beach to demand that evacuees from the Aug. 8 fire — housed in hotel rooms for the last three months on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tab — be moved into more permanent housing.

The advocacy group, which includes members who lost everything in the Lahaina fire, erected tents and fishing poles on Kaanapali Beach next to the touristy shopping center Whalers Village. They promised to stay put until Maui Mayor Richard Bissen and Gov. Josh Green met their demand for “dignified housing.”

They called their camp-in: “Lahaina Strong Hui: Fishing for Dignified Housing.”

That made me wonder. How many people in the entire state of Hawaii — crushed by soaring property values and a dearth of affordable homes — can say they live in “dignified housing?”

The word “dignified” is generally defined as commanding respect. How much respect can someoneʻs house or condo command when it eats up most of their salary in mortgage payments or is a rented studio in a scary, crime-filled neighborhood, or worse, if the home is a blue tarp flapping in the wind under the freeway?

In Lahaina, the aftermath of the fire that killed at least 99 people and decimated more than 2,200 homes and other buildings has laid bare many of the problems people face all over Hawaii: the shakiness of an economy dependent on tourism, the failure of the Hawaii government to protect its people from physical harm, low-paying jobs and undignified housing.

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Hurricane-force winds fueled a fire that burned much of Lahaina to the ground. Thousands of people who were displaced have temporary housing but are eager to find a more permanent solution. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Of course, for the people of Lahaina struggling to cope with the deaths of close relatives and friends and the loss of jobs, homes and family pets — it’s not about inadequate housing. It is about not having a house at all.

At the rally, Lahaina Strongʻs leaders demanded that the Maui mayor and the governor use their emergency powers to convert West Mauiʻs thousands of short-term rentals into long-term rentals for fire survivors to live in while they await their return to Lahaina to rebuild — a wait that could take many years.

More than 6,000 Lahaina residents were displaced by the fire.

They also called for an extension of protections against rent increases and evictions for at least a year and immediate deferment of mortgage payments for all homes destroyed in the fire.

Lahaina Strong did not directly define its term dignified housing but spoke about stable housing — places where a person can live free from worrying about getting kicked out.

FEMA has promised Lahainaʻs displaced residents housing through Feb. 10, but many government leases on hotel rooms for the fire victims expire on Nov. 30.

“Although we are extremely grateful that these hotels have opened up their doors to all the displaced residents … we need something stable. Our community needs stability, dignified housing,” said Lahaina fire survivor Courtney Lazo.

Lahaina Strong rally organizer Jordan Ruidas spoke of the difficulty displaced families face being crowded into single hotel rooms “especially as the holidays approach. Families want to cook, have visitors and create a sense of normalcy, which is often constrained in these hotel environments.”

“In this already tight housing market, there is simply no place to go,” she said.

Ruidas founded Lahaina Strong as a Facebook fundraising page after the 2018 fire in Lahaina, driven by Hurricane Lane, destroyed 21 homes, 30 cars and burned 2,000 acres.

At the “Fishing for Dignified Housing” rally, speakers made their demands surrounded by Hawaiian flags turned upside down, a symbol of a Hawaiian nation in distress.

While several people who’ve been staying in hotel rooms funded by federal disaster relief money say they are grateful for shelter, frustration is mounting over their inability to cook their own food or host family gatherings in their rooms. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Upside down Hawaiian flags were a ubiquitous symbol at protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea.

Some members of Lahaina’s large Filipino community worry about having a lesser place in the conversation about rebuilding the decimated town.

They are not as organized and vocal as Hawaiian groups now moving forward with political experience gained from the Mauna Kea protests and other recent political movements.

In a text sent Monday, Ruidas said Lahaina Strong is not just Hawaiian-led and she herself is a Filipino American. “Anyone and everyone is invited and welcomed,” she wrote.

At the rally, leaders mentioned only once the importance of including all the different racial communities of Lahaina in the quest ahead for “dignified housing.” 

“Lahaina was built by all different ethnic groups. Hawaiian, Haole, Filipino Hawaiian, Samoan. All of ’em,” said Leonard “Junya” Nakoa. “But we all came together. Look at this today. Awesome.”

Nakoa waged an unsuccessful attempt last year on the Aloha Aina party ticket to win the 14th District- West Maui seat in the state House of Representatives. He was defeated by Democrat Ellie Cochran.

Interestingly,  Nakoa was a vocal opponent of the governor’s effort to fast-track the construction of thousands of housing units for Hawaii’s residents who are currently in need of up to 40,000 more affordable (dignified) units.

For Lahaina to thrive going forward, all voices must be respected in government efforts to help create dignified housing — first and foremost for Lahainaʻs suffering population — but also, in the years ahead, for the rest of Hawaiiʻs residents plagued by housing insecurity.

Read this next:

Death Toll In Lahaina Fire Rises To 100

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

I hate to play skeptic here, but it sounds like someone emailed a news organization to promote a foundation, which also happens to raise donations from the public. The foundation's page is a Facebook page which says: "All donations to this fundraiser go to the fundraiser creator's personal checking account. "Lahaina Strong" is not registered with the state of Hawaii as a charity, nor is there any accounting of where donations actually go.Who knows if this is a legitimate charity or not, but there are many registered, audited charities supporting Lahaina that are very clear about their intentions and how funds are allocated. Lahaina Strong doesn't seem especially credible either, since they simultaneously: 1) oppose the use of government power to fast track housing development to aid those impacted by the fires, but also2) demand that the government expand its power to force property owners to rent long term Lahaina Strong's constituents

FutureNihon · 2 weeks ago

At the moment there is no shortage of jobs for cleaning up. Create the jobs needed to get the place back up to speed. Train and hire locals that are willing to be trained and take on employment. This could prove to be very productive for the economy and the people of Maui. Basically, give the able bodied people a hand up not a hand out.

2cents · 2 weeks ago

Turn off the TV ! Our notions of dignity are greatly influenced for the worse by the imagery & values espoused by a consumption- and celebrity-based medium. While true across US culture it hurts here most of all. Traditional Pasifika values of sincerity, empathy, collective good, patience, et al. - Hawaiian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Filipino alike - get quashed by imperatives of flashy individual expression. Unmet expectations over what's "appropriate" or "deserved" (housing, education, labor, leisure) are a major stressor, which sets up a negative feedback loop reinforcing those disparities. (No one says it's ok to be homeless, but we're actually talking about a spectrum of needs & self-esteem.) How often folks bemoan their unmet station in life, while sporting thousands worth of tattoos & gold, blowing 5K on fireworks, and driving new trucks with 10K+ of accessories.Handing the reins over to consumer values is a major driver here. Better to reinforce respect in its more traditional frameworks (kuleana, bayanihan, lotogatasi, etc.), take a cue from happier communities, and fight for capital improvements.

Kamanulai · 2 weeks ago

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