Water agency ID’d as major Lahaina recovery roadblock

The state’s plans to spend over $600 million to shelter victims of the Lahaina wildfire in hotels is neither financially sustainable nor ideal for victims who are desperately seeking a sense of normalcy, according to Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

Speaking on Feb. 29 with radio host Rick Hamada on NewsRadio 830 KHVH, Kent emphasized the growing “frustration at how long it’s taking to build housing” that he observed during his recent visit to Maui. 

Kent said the nonprofit Family Life Center has stepped up to provide a midterm housing solution by constructing modular homes on land owned by King’s Cathedral in Kahului. 

“What they’re hearing is people want to live there. They would much rather go out of the hotel and live in these units because they have bathrooms and kitchens and refrigerators and everything that you want, you can bring. You don’t have someone telling you what you can and can’t do,” said Kent. “Only one problem: they can’t get permits.” 

Kent said one of the primary roadblocks to quicker homebuilding is the state’s Commission on Water Resource Management.  

“We’ve got this long line of developers who have been trying for decades to get a permit at the Water Commission,” he explained. “And so, any new temporary emergency housing would have to go to the back of the line.”

Kent commended the resilience of groups forging ahead despite the red tape, but stressed that such bureaucratic obstacles deter “investors or developers who want to help in this situation, but don’t want to lose millions of dollars that they have on the line in case some lawmaker decides to say no.”

Kent said the governor and some state lawmakers have set their eyes on banning short-term rentals as the solution to providing emergency housing, but Maui County officials are not happy about that because STRs are the county’s largest source of revenue. 

“If you ban short-term rentals, that takes away the county’s ability to actually service this population. And so, it’s a really interesting tug of war that’s set up right now,” said Kent. 

To listen to the entire 15-minute conversation, click the image below.

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