Addressing Maui’s housing needs following the Lahaina wildfires
November 22, 2023, 8:55 AM HST
* Updated November 22, 12:35 PM
As government leaders are tasked with meeting the critical need for housing in the wake of the August wildfires on Maui, one suggestion has drawn particular interest.
For Maui resident, Matt Jachowski, there’s only one answer: utilizing short-term rentals and second homes while seeking federal and philanthropic dollars to fill the rent gap.
In an effort to find a solution in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Jachowski used his skills in software development and data analysis to create the MauiHaleMatch.org website, connecting Hawaiʻi homeowners to displaced Maui residents, and creating a community resource for long-term housing.
Upon launching the website, Jachowski said he was immediately amazed at the mismatch between the supply and demand.
“At this point, I’m up to nearly 900 families requesting housing on the site, and just shy of 100 landlords who stepped forward to house them,” he said. That’s what led him down a rabbit hole of data to determine what kind of housing supply exists on the island.
Jachowski has since been hired by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and presented his findings during a keynote address at the 22nd Annual Native Hawaiian Convention, held on Maui last week.
Finding a solution to Maui’s “housing bottleneck”
With thousands of homes and businesses destroyed in Lahaina, and more than 3,500 displaced families, the search for a dignified solution to long-term housing has drawn the attention of community and government leaders alike.
Jachowski described the current situation as a “housing bottleneck.”
His data shows there are over 2,700 families still in hotels, 229 in Airbnbs supported by state vouchers, 253 ʻohana living with host families, and an uncounted number more who are living in other short-term housing.
For Jachowski, he said, “On Maui, there’s only one answer.”
By Jachowski’s estimates, only 15% of these units would need to be converted to long-term housing to meet the current demand.
“It would be great to get help with regulation from our County Council and from our mayor, to incentivize these owners to do it, and even to put an outright ban on some of these short-term rentals. But even in the absence of that, I think 15% is a doable number,” he said. “I want to believe that there’s 15% of these owners who are mostly on the mainland, who have big enough hearts that they’d be willing to come to the table and help us.”
How to bridge the “rental gap”
The number one anticipated obstacle identified was the expense of short-term rentals. Jachowski presented an analysis of Airbnb data from rentals in west and south Maui, looking at what it would take to ensure that short-term rental owners were paid the same amount they’re making from tourists. He also factored in the property tax savings they would get from converting to a long-term rental, which pays lower taxes.
According to his findings, Jachowski said the cost would be around $3,700 a month for a one-bedroom, $5,300 a month for a two-bedroom, and $6,900 a month for a three-bedroom. But that’s much more than what displaced families can afford.
“Our families can only pay less than half that amount,” said Jachowski, who utilized data collected at MauiHaleMatch.org. “So they’re not going to be able to stay in these places, unless we come in with real financial assistance to get them into these units.”
Jachowski confirmed that the current FEMA contributions are not enough to support the conversion of these short-term rentals.
“FEMA has their process for increasing this multiplier and paying more money to get these people housing, but frankly, it’s happening too slow,” and he said that it was “not enough.”
The data also showed that many Airbnb units are managed by “just a handful” of local property managers. “This is actually really good news, because if we’re going to start tackling this problem, we don’t need to immediately start reaching out to thousands of owners who are mostly on the continent. We can focus on just a handful of local property managers that have access to thousands of units,” he said.
Securing units, messaging, funding and pre-approval
In addressing the question of how to start solving the housing problem right now, Jachowski outlined several steps.
“The first thing we have to do is sign up our short-term rental owners and get those property managers on board. Property managers first, but we’re going to eventually have to go straight to the owners—almost all of these owners are on the continent. And we need to have a huge unified messaging campaign,” he said.
Since the gap between what people can afford to pay and what needs to be paid in order to get people into short-term rentals is significant, multiple sources of funding were suggested.
In addition to FEMA funding, Jachowski suggested the solicitation of private philanthropic dollars to fund the remainder of the rental gap.
He also stressed the importance of pre-approval procedures to ensure a smooth transition.
“We can’t have a lengthy application process. We can’t have a lease and then say, ‘Oh your rent money is going to come in three months’ after these people are approved. We need to have them pre-approved so they can move in right away… That’s my take on how we get out of this housing crisis led by data,” said Jachowski.
Why are data driven solutions important?
According to Jachowski, data driven solutions are important because they enable the identification of bottlenecks.
While there’s been many an offer to bring tiny home solutions to the Valley Isle—and some projects have moved forward—the problem of where to put them, finding water and building temporary infrastructure to support them are among the challenges that have surfaced.
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement was already using data before Jachowski joined the team. Shortly after the fire, they opened the Kakoʻo Maui Resource Center, where they’ve helped over 2,700 impacted individuals, which represents over 848 families. That’s about one quarter, about 25% of all impacted families on Maui.
“Based on the data out of that program, they created the Host Housing Support Program in which 253 hosts who are housing displaced families are getting financial support. That’s supporting about 7% of our impacted families. That’s a large percentage,” he said.
According to the data, a vast majority of hosts took people in within the first week after the fires. The program experienced peaks of new hosts joining at the one month and two month marks, corresponding to when hotel contracts came up.
“We have more hotel contracts expiring at the beginning of December and the beginning of February. Though it’s good that we have this Host Housing Support Program to hopefully help provide some sort of backstop for families that are impacted by that,” said Jachowski.
“Of the families that are either in the process of applying to, or already approved for the program, 96% of them were able to stay on Maui. This is great news—we should keep every family who wants to stay on Maui, we should be able to find them housing on the island,” he said.
Out of all those people filtering through, about two thirds of those people were previously renters in Lahaina, according to the data presented. “This is a really important piece of information because renters and homeowners are going to have a different set of needs that we need to reach as we rebuild. It also tells us that as we rebuild, we need to make sure that we rebuild a lot of interim rental options for these folks,” he said.
Jachowski outlined unique challenges faced by renters. He said most of them don’t have rental insurance. This is in contrast to homeowners—most of whom are getting financial support from their homeowner insurance plans.
Another obstacle is that most long-term housing options require applicants to show proof of employment and income.
The data also shows that over half of the people who have come to the Kakoʻo Center have lost their jobs with 58% of the families experiencing job loss. The center has stepped forward to offer a trades training program.
According to Jachowski, the data also helps to find gaps.
“If we look at the ethnicities of the families that are being supported by the Host Housing Program, we see that Filipinos, Hawaiians, Caucasians and Japanese are well represented; but we also need to look at who’s not represented,” he said.
“The lens that I bring to this problem is informed by my wife who is the Executive Director of Roots Reborn, which is an immigrant aid organization that sprung up in the wake of the fires. From her, I know that Latinos and Hispanics make up at least 11% of the population in Lahaina, and that number is almost certainly higher because of undocumented immigrants. We don’t have any Latinos or Hispanics represented or being supported by the Host Housing Program. This is not a criticism of the program, but it shows the value of looking at the data to see who’s falling through the gaps. What do we need to do to reach the people who really need help?”