Maui’s mayor prioritizes housing and vows to hire more firefighters after Lahaina wildfire

Mar 16, 2024, 2:40 PM

HONOLULU (AP) — Maui’s mayor says he is prioritizing housing, evaluating evacuation routes and hiring more firefighters as his Hawaii community recovers from the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Mayor Richard Bissen outlined the steps in emotional remarks more than seven months after the Aug. 8 wildfire killed 101 people in the historic town of Lahaina.

He kicked off his address by saying “the state of the county is heartbroken” and then paused several times throughout his 45-minute speech to collect himself as he spoke of those who died and of the heroism and sacrifices of residents and county employees. He recounted stories of those who rescued people from the flames and opened evacuation centers and food distribution hubs for survivors.

“It will take strength, courage and faith to keep moving forward. But the foundations of that will be in how we care for one another, always leading with aloha,” Bissen said in his Friday night address, which was delivered in Wailuku and streamed online.

Maui had a housing shortage and some of the nation’s most expensive housing even before the fire. The island’s housing crisis only intensified after the blaze destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and displaced 4,500 residents. About 87% of those who lost their homes were renters.

Thousands of people are still staying in hotels while they look for places to rent and wait for longer-term housing options. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state and private charities have been paying for the hotel rooms.

To boost housing options, Bissen said his legal team would review an exemption to county laws that allows owners of selected properties to turn their condos into vacation rentals and lease them to visitors for less than 30 days at a time.

Activists say there are 2,500 such properties in West Maui alone that could be used to house displaced residents. Since November, activists have been camping on the beach facing waterfront hotels in a “Fishing for Housing” protest to demand that the county revoke the exemption.

Bissen said his administration would boost enforcement against illegal vacation rentals by investigating anonymous tips in addition to those submitted by a named source. He said it would also prepare for both interim and long-term housing development, but he didn’t mention specifics.

The mayor said he would submit rent-stabilization legislation to the county council with the aim of bringing relief to residents while fairly balancing the needs of property owners.

Some of those who died in the fire were caught in traffic jams trying to leave Lahaina. Like many Hawaii towns, it sits sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains and has limited roads in and out. Bissen said county planning, emergency management, fire and police departments were examining evacuation routes in Lahaina and elsewhere.

Bissen said he has approved the addition of 29 positions for the Department of Fire and Public Safety.

“These expansion positions will undoubtedly increase overall firefighting capability across our county and enhance the fire department’s capacity to respond to future large-scale emergencies,” Bissen said.

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Maui’s mayor prioritizes housing and vows to hire more firefighters after Lahaina wildfire