Maui wildfire victims fear land grab may threaten Hawaiian culture

By Andrew Hay and Liliana Salgado

KAANAPALI, Hawaii (Reuters) - Deborah Loeffler felt she could not lose much more after a wildfire destroyed the home in Maui, where five generations of her family have lived, and a son died the same day on the U.S. mainland.

Grieving and overwhelmed, Loeffler was soon beset by emails with unsolicited proposals she sell the Lahaina beachfront plot in Maui where her grandfather built their teal-green wooden home in the 1940s.

"It felt like we had vultures preying on us," said Loeffler, 69, a retired flight attendant, sitting in the brown-carpeted hotel room in Maui to which she was evacuated, an untouched container of cooked powdered egg and cold potato by her bedside.

Her experience will be familiar to people in places such as Paradise, California or northern New Mexico, where buyers moved in to try to obtain distressed property after blazes in 2018 and 2022.

Loeffler fears a land grab on Maui would mean the loss of Hawaiian culture.

In Hawaii, the fire exacerbated a chronic shortage of affordable housing, potentially accelerating a drain of multi-generational families from the U.S. state looking for places they can afford to live. The population of Native Hawaiians in the state dropped below the number living on the U.S. mainland over the last decade, according to U.S. Census data.

Before Lahaina was destroyed by the most deadly U.S. wildfire in a century, its average home price was $1.1 million, three times the U.S. national average, according to the real estate site Zillow.

In Maui County, where around 75% the population is Asian, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or of mixed race, the median household income is $88,000, just 24% above the U.S. average, according to census reports.

Affordable housing advocates such as Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) are calling for a moratorium on foreclosures.

HAPA along with the state government is documenting unsolicited purchase offers in Lahaina, the early 19th century capital of the kingdom of Hawaii before its overthrow in a U.S.-backed 1893 coup.

Hawaii's Office of Consumer Protection warned of people making below-market offers, playing on fears of foreclosure and the cost of rebuilding. The office declined to comment on how many such offers had been reported.

"We will be making sure we do all we can to prevent that land from falling into the hands of people from the outside," Hawaii Governor Josh Green, who has proposed a ban on Lahaina land sales, said at an Aug. 15 press conference.

Reuters has seen two emails sent by someone claiming to represent The EMortgage in Oklahoma City, one linking to a site called Cash Offer USA. The emails claimed to represent "local buyers" seeking sellers, offering all-cash deals and no closing costs for homes as-is -- "no need to make any repairs." Clicking on the Cash Offer USA link brought up an inactive form for uploading property details.

A functioning website for Cash Offer USA in Florida does offer cash for homes, but has an entirely different format to the Cash Offer USA page sent by The EMortgage.

The EMortgage did not respond to two emails from Reuters seeking comment. Reuters also emailed and called the Florida Cash Offer USA, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Many long-term resident families who lost homes in the Lahaina fire did not have insurance, either because their homes had no mortgage or did not meet building codes, said Sterling Higa, director of Housing Hawaii's Future which seeks to end the state's workforce housing shortage.

How long residents can hold out against property offers may depend on the type of transitional housing they get as they wait to rebuild, said Higa.

"There has to be real support for them in terms of housing, in terms of financial support," said Higa, whose wife grew up in Lahaina.

Disaster response experts expect temporary housing to be provided through a mix of hotel rooms and condos, conversion of rentals, mobile home encampments and possibly some family transfers to Honolulu, the state's largest city.

"Keeping people nearby and engaged in recovery is a good first step to preserving the population," said Andrew Rumbach, a specialist in disasters, climate and communities at the Urban Institute in Washington.

At stake is the survival of Hawaiian culture, said Kaliko Baker, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii.

"If people buy land and build their own Lahaina does that include Hawaiian language schools?" said Baker, in reference to one such school that burned down next to an historic Lahaina church.

Loeffler, now sheltered with her husband a few miles from their destroyed home, deleted the email offers she received in disgust. She is mourning her son, Sam, whose death was unrelated to the Maui fire, and all that her community has lost.

She escaped with her purse and a book by a friend of her late son. She said she owes her life to her tenant who saw the fire coming and went door-to-door telling people to flee.

Loeffler plans to rebuild her plantation-style family home with insurance money so Lahaina can again "look like Lahaina." She wants her grandchildren to keep their connection to an island their Japanese-German-Hawaiian family has lived on for about a century.

"I'm not selling it, if I have to go live there in a tent I'm doing it."

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Liliana Salgado in Kaanapali, Hawaii; additional reporting by Rachel Nostrant, Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Donna Bryson and Michael Perry)