Displacement Fears in Lahaina

Economists warn that reconstruction could put new housing out of reach for long-time residents.

2 minute read

October 6, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Aerial view of destroyed home and cars after Lahaina, Hawaii wildfires.

zane / Adobe Stock

“A Sept. 22 economic forecast from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization detailed how the housing landscape in Lahaina could change without government intervention,” writes Molly Bolan in Route Fifty. The report warns that “longtime residents who lost their homes could be permanently pushed out of their neighborhoods due to high housing costs.”

The situation, dubbed ‘disaster gentrification,’ isn’t unique to Lahaina, says Andrew Rumbach of the Urban Institute. “ In New Orleans, home prices skyrocketed in the years after Hurricane Katrina. In Boulder County, Colorado, an Urban Institute study tracking recovery from the 2021 Marshall Fire found that wealthy households were much more likely to rebuild their homes.”

Because Lahaina is primarily zoned for single-family homes that will be expensive to rebuild, “One way to help the community’s equitable recovery would be by upzoning lots to accommodate more multifamily housing, a solution Lahaina had initiated even before the fire.” Rumbach also suggests reconsidering short-term rental regulations to limit how many units can be listed in sites like Airbnb.

Justin Tyndall, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Hawai’i, says government affordable housing programs will be a key part of preventing displacement. “Only through these kinds of reforms, only through really good use of funding, will they be able to create housing that the folks who are displaced will be able to afford,” Tyndall says.

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