A panel discussion on opening day of the Native Hawaiian Convention on Maui explored ways to provide affordable housing by purchasing properties burned in the Aug. 8 wildfire.

The first steps are being taken toward creating a community-based land trust to purchase properties burned in the deadly Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire for the purpose of providing affordable housing while thwarting predatory investors.

Deeply moved by the tragedy and a desire to “fight back against gentrification” and preserve the character of the close-knit community, Carolyn Auweloa, a Lahaina native who now lives on the Big Island, is undertaking the necessary groundwork to establish the Lahaina Land Trust, a 501(c)3 nonprofit trust to be governed and guided by kamaaina, families with generational ties to the region and other community members.

Auweloa, a panelist during a breakout session on Tuesday’s opening day of the 22nd Annual Native Hawaiian Convention at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, hosted by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, has filed the required paperwork with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs but said the fledgling effort will require the skills and determination of many others. 

Panelists at the discussion surrounding the Lahaina Land Trust included Lahaina Community Land Trust Carolyn Auweloa, Tamara Paltin, Reyna Ramolete, Laura Hoku Ka’akua, (front right). (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

According to the nonprofit Grounded Solutions Network, a typical community land trust for affordable housing allows families or individuals to buy a house – or build one in the case of Lahaina – on land owned by the trust. Since the homeowner is buying only the house, not the land, the price is more affordable.

Homeowners lease the land from the trust, usually for 99 years for a nominal monthly fee, and can build equity in their home but must agree to sell at a fair price to keep it affordable in perpetuity.

Such an arrangement also could be a chance for people who desire to move out of Lahaina for good, or who must sell due to financial hardship ensure their properties stay in local hands.

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin, also part of the land trust discussion, noted the “bleak situation” faced by many homeowners who lost their residences yet must continue mortgage payments, pay rent and deal with the daily post-fire struggles of unemployment, unstable temporary housing and a maze of government and private assistance programs.

Paltin said she has spoken to fire survivors who decided to leave and don’t plan to return “but still love Lahaina and don’t want to be known as a sellout.” These people instead could “sell in” by allowing the community-based trust to buy their property, ensuring it will go to local residents. And in other cases, the trust could serve as a “bridge owner” for those who need financial breathing room during the three to five years it may take to rebuild their homes.

Under that scenario, homeowners could sell to the land trust with a limited-term buy-back provision.

Paltin acknowledged that at the moment, with 6,800 of the displaced still scattered across hotels and other accommodations, fire survivors are consumed with their more immediate needs, but the idea is to “get things started and give people hope.”

“Anything is possible when there’s really nothing left there,” she said.

Auweloa, whose day job is working for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said many details of establishing the Lahaina Land Trust have yet to be worked out – it doesn’t have a website and is not accepting donations yet – and with all the uncertainty and stress in the community, “we are not going to push this on anybody.”

However, organizers already have connected with Lahaina’s sizable Filipino community, longtime families, the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Grounded Solutions Network and other interests, including jurisdictions elsewhere that have similar land trusts. 

She’s hoping that by spring, once formally established, the Lahaina Land Trust will hire its first staff member and be in a position to start collecting donations.

Paltin emphasized that nothing will go forward without “a big community discussion,” which so far has proven difficult with so many residents displaced and dispersed, and numerous other fire-related events and meetings competing for their time and interest.

“We don’t want to go too far forward without everybody being able to sit down at the table and have that conversation with us, and so many are not there yet,” she said.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement decided to move the four-day convention from Oahu to Maui in a show of support for the grieving community, marking the first time the event has been held on the Valley Isle. The agenda is wide ranging, but the future of Lahaina and fire-related topics are a focus of many of the panel discussions and breakout sessions, which run through Friday.  

Archie Kalepa delivered the keynote remarks: “Lele Aloha, Lahaina Resilience” at the 22nd Annual Native Hawaiian Convention at Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)

Renowned waterman and community leader Archie Kalepa offered keynote remarks Tuesday that used Polynesian voyaging traditions as a metaphor for the recent catastrophe in Lahaina.

“We understand storms. We have been sailing in a storm for the last 150 years. We just came out of the most gnarliest storm. This canoe is broken. This canoe is Lahaina. We have to fix this canoe,” he said.

Kalepa, a captain and crew member on the Hokule’a voyaging canoe, has been on the front lines of relief and recovery efforts in West Maui since the wildfire raged through the historic town, claiming at least 100 lives and leveling more than 2,200 structures, most of them residences.

In order for this latest voyage to be successful, he urged the community to develop “a sail plan” for generations to come with Hawaiian values as a starting point.

“We need to find the land we once knew. … This fire, as hard as it is for our community, is probably the easiest opportunity we have to create change, because it’s all gone,” he said.

Kalepa announced plans for a community gathering Jan. 20 at Launiupoko Beach Park with “10,000 conch shells blowing” in a show of unity, coinciding with the arrival of Hokule’a after its return from its U.S. West Coast sailings, curtailed out of a desire to show solidarity with Lahaina.

The convention, with 1,800 registered to attend, also features hula performances, a Maui Makeke marketplace with local vendors, a job and resource fair and food trucks. Other activities Tuesday included sessions on using fungi, plants and beneficial microbes for environmental remediation in burned areas; traditional and modern approaches to reforestation and agroforestry; management of precious water resources; and the historical importance of Lahaina to Native Hawaiians.

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

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