Maui residents are still reeling from wildfire devastation. Now investors and realtors are trying to cash in

Shortly after the wildfires on Maui, residents said realtors and investors were making calls offering to buy land  (AP/AFP)
Shortly after the wildfires on Maui, residents said realtors and investors were making calls offering to buy land (AP/AFP)

Just days after fast-moving wildfires broke out in Maui, Hawaii, residents were heartbroken to see the remainder of their homes, businesses and lives turned to ash.

Thousands are without shelter and their possessions, as nearly 80 per cent of structures in the town of Lahaina have been damaged or completely destroyed.

Even worse are the scores of people forced to mourn the untimely loss of loved ones who were unable to escape the blazes before they engulfed neighbourhoods.

But the same people who are trying to grapple with the immense loss and figure out how to move forward, are reportedly being forced to defend what they have left of their land and grief as investors and realtors try to captalise on the disaster.

“I am so frustrated with inventors and realtors calling the families who lost their home offering to buy their land,” Lahaina resident Tiare Lawrence said in a video on Kāko’o Haleakalā.

Kāko’o Haleakalā, a nonprofit organisation aiming to protect and preserve Hawaiian land and native species, was just one of the many that sounded alarms about investors’ efforts.

“How dare you do that to our community right now,” Ms Lawrence said.

More people have come forward saying real estate agents and investors have called them inquiring if they would sell their land, not even one week after the wildfires.

Though Hawaii governor Josh Green has insisted he will not allow investors to take land, some are worried it is inevitable because Maui is so expensive to build on and the federal government’s payments may not be enough to cover everyone’s rebuilding efforts.

‘Fear of being erased’

Six days after the Lahaina fire, Keʻeaumoku Kapu, a Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians) community leader, told CBC that he was contacted by a realtor asking to buy his burned property.

"Because our island is now turned into a cheaper commodity because there’s nothing more important to save here, you have people coming in willing to buy burned-out places,” Mr Kapu told CBC.

Destroyed buildings and cars are pictured in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 16, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
Destroyed buildings and cars are pictured in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 16, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Kapu said he has urged people not to sell their land but he fears the price will motivate people to leave.

“I’m hoping that we can get over this hurdle but at the same time the fear of being erased,” he added.

Mark Stefl told USA Today he, too, was approached by developers to buy his land.

“I’m not gonna sell it,” Mr Stefl told the news outlet

Mr Stefl said he’s lived in the area for 24 years and already has to rebuild two homes – one that burned in a fire and one that was destroyed during a hurricane.

He added: “I’m going to stay here. I love it here, as messed up as it is.”

Kaniela Ing, a Native Hawaiian community organiser, told CNN that “predatory land grabbers” have been eyeing the island “for generations.”

“Fear of predatory land grabbers coming in is legitimate because it’s already happening, it’s been happening for generations now,” Mr Ing said.

Mr Ing has been on Maui for seven generations.

He added: “And every time there’s a crisis, it accelerates.”

Activists, including the organisation Kāko’o Haleakalā, have encouraged residents to report the names of realtors and investors who are trying to buy their land.

Keoni, a Kanaka Maoli Kia’i (Native Hawaiian Activist) tweeted asking people who are receiving calls from realtors to take down their names so they could expose them.

Residents and activists quickly called on the government to issue a land block to prevent people from grabbing land while the federal government figured out payments, which Mr Green responded to in agreement.

Maui is not for sale

Governor Green told reporters on 14 August that he spoke directly with the attorney general to try and issue a moratorium on “any sales of properties that have been damaged or destroyed.”

Mr Green reiterated the importance of keeping land to its rightful owners and scolded realtors and investors for trying to capitalise on “traumatised” families.

Additionally, Mr Green said that realtors will likely not be offering Hawaiians what their properties are valued at.

“I would caution people that it’s going to be a very long time before any growth or housing can be built and so you will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here,” Mr Green said.

One realtor in Hawaii, named Ashley Correa, told NewsNation she heard some people were offering $100,000 for burned land.

“It’s so insensitive and just despicable,” Ms Correa said.

More than 2,000 structures have been burned in Lahaina alone. Mr Green said he estimates it will cost $5 billion to rebuild parts of Maui.

Wildfire wreckage is shown Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Wildfire wreckage is shown Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Mr Green said that the housing moratorium “doesn’t mean that we don’t want people to come and invest in Hawaii and travel to Hawaii away from the impact zone.” But it is a way to protect Native Hawaiians and residents first and foremost.

That first step will be getting people housing, food and clean water first.

Mr Green has enlisted the help of the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to begin issuing payments to those affected by the wildfires to help rebuild their homes.

To start, residents in need of food, water and clothing are getting a one-time payment of $700. On top of that, the agency is paying to house people in hotels and motels until they can find more permanent housing.

FEMA will also help survivors repair their homes and reimburse them for personal property needs that may not be covered by insurance.

As for those who had their entire house burned down, the agency is also offering disaster loans of up to $500,000 for homeowners to repair or replace their real estate. Another loan of up to $100,000 is available to renters and homeowners.

Nonprofit organisations as well as personal fundraisers like GoFundMe can be used to help repair or replace homes that were burned in the wildfires.

But waiting for the payouts may take a while as the disaster zone has not even begun to be cleared.

Officials are still looking for approximately 850 missing people and the bodies of those who did not make it.

Given FEMA’s response history with other disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there is a fear that government payouts will not be enough to help those who lost everything.

Rebuilding without selling

Hawaii is one of the most expensive states to live in, partially due to its remote location, which can require a lot of goods to be flown in.

The average home in Lahaina is valued at around $1m, according to Zillow – almost double the price of the average home in America, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data.

But the rise of hotels, resorts and condos on Maui, has made it a favourite, and more affordable option, for tourists and people looking to move.


Richy Palalay, a 25-year-old who was born in raised in Lahaina told the Associated Press that the is worried that investors will seize the opportunity to pay a lower price for the land locals live on to build expensive resorts.

“I’m more concerned of big land developed coming in and seeing this charred land as an opportunity to rebuild,” Mr Palalay told Associated Press on Saturday.

Mr Palalay said his workplace, his neighbourhood, his friends’ homes and potentially his own home were burned down in the fire.

Archie Kalepa, a longtime resident of Lahaina told The Washington Post, he similarly is worried that big investors will make deals that desperate survivors have no choice but to take.

“One of the things that we as a community and as a state is going to be faced with, is how do we begin to address the long-term recovery, rebuilding, keeping people here and not selling off what losses they had and moving,” Mr Kalepa, said

“We want to make sure we keep Lahaina, Lahaina.”