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Fears of predatory land grabs mount in the ashes of Maui, opening old wounds


By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN

(CNN) — The threat of predatory outsiders swooping in to buy up property under the ashes of Maui is sparking outrage and opening old wounds for locals.

“Fear of predatory land grabbers coming in is legitimate because it’s already happening, it’s been happening for generations now,” said Kaniela Ing, a Native Hawaiian community organizer whose family has been on Maui for seven generations. “And every time there’s a crisis, it accelerates.”

A week after wildfires razed through west Maui, killing more than a hundred people and displacing thousands, locals are grieving and rallying together to take care of those who lost everything. And they are also warning each other via impassioned social media posts to watch out for speculators eyeing real estate opportunities atop the rubble where authorities are still recovering the remains of victims.

A history of dispossession

For many locals and Native Hawaiians, the proactive warnings and outrage over the threat of losing their land is deeply rooted in their history — dating all the way back to 1893, when American-backed insurrectionists overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani and seized the land of the Kingdom of Hawaii. American and European financiers, sugar cane plantation owners and descendants of missionaries then put in place a provisional government and eventually transferred the royal land to the United States. In 1993, the US government offered a formal apology for this incident, but the pain for Native Hawaiians is still fresh.

“Native Hawaiians have a fear that is rooted in a history of dispossession,” said Sterling Higa, who lives on the north side of Maui and works as the executive director of the local nonprofit Housing Hawaii’s Future. “For centuries now, they have watched their land being taken by foreigners.”

And the local communities that have been on Maui for generations are also all too familiar with being priced out of their familial homes over the years.

“Before the fire in Lahaina, the same process had continued to unfold in west Maui, where Native Hawaiians, local families, were being priced out of their homes as wealthier people from out-of-state bought second or third homes, investment properties or homes that they could retire into,” Higa told CNN. “And prices of housing in west Maui has vastly outstripped the wages that are paid in Maui, especially for people working in the hospitality industry.”

Now, in the wake of the fire’s devastation, locals are banding together to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. And the government has pledged to support them.

‘We are not going to allow it’: Government pledges full support

Multiple state agencies have issued warnings and offered to support residents at risk of falling victim to predatory offers to buy up their property.

Governor Josh Green pledged to “make sure that people don’t lose their land here in Hawaii” in a news conference Wednesday evening and said he’s instructed the attorney general to work on implementing a “moratorium on any transactions.”

“People right now are traumatized. Please don’t approach them with an offer to buy land. Please don’t approach their families to tell them that they are going to be better off if they make a deal,” Green said.

“Because we are not going to allow it, and then between myself and I’m sure the mayor, we’re not going to allow people to get permits,” he added.

The governor doubled down on this promise, directly warning those who may be interested in capitalizing on the tragedy: “Don’t make the mistake of testing us in that space, please.”

Earlier this week, Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs urged homeowners to “exercise caution” if faced with unsolicited offers on their property. The agency asked people to report such offers to the state’s office of consumer protection.

“Any reported instances of misconduct will be investigated, and if confirmed, wrongdoers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Mana Moriarty, executive director of the Office of Consumer Protection, said. “Illegal conduct and those seeking to take advantage of those most vulnerable will not be tolerated.”

‘We protect our own’: What locals can do

Despite the promises from the government, Ing said it’s important for government and US mainland-based mega nonprofits responding to the crisis to “recognize that there’s a deep mistrust with government and large agencies.”

Ing said if there’s one thing he wants the kama’aina (locals) and kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) community to know, it’s that: “There’s help out there.”

“It’s important to hold federal agencies accountable and make sure they’re operating in a culturally sensitive way,” Ing said. Already, he said, there are “dangerous, dangerous” rumors spreading that falsely claim you could lose your land if you accept FEMA money — stemming from decades of mistrust in outsiders coming in.

Ing, who currently works as national director of climate justice organization Green New Deal Network, is among the army of local volunteers now trying to meet one-on-one with people impacted by the fire, to help meet their individual needs and concerns. It’s through these community-based efforts, Ing said, that the people of Maui will best find a way to equitably rebuild.

Governor Green said in a separate news conference on Tuesday that the government will offer free legal aid, from local attorneys, to those who need it. “We will be embedding attorneys who are going to work pro-bono for our people, Maui attorneys for Maui’s people, to be at our joint response centers available to all of us,” he said.

Higa, of Housing Hawaii’s Future, added that federal aid, insurance payments, unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance “all take time to arrive.”

“In the interim, there have to be nimble, fast forms of assistance so families can afford all their expenses and not succumb to the pressure to sell,” he added.

Higa said outsiders looking to help can best do so by donating directly to impacted families, pointing to community groups that are working around the clock to vet GoFundMe and Venmo pages started by victims of the fire.

As Ing put it, “We just need to make sure that our community feels like we’re united, and that no survivor or anyone impacted by the fires are isolated.”

“We protect our own,” Ing said. “That’s just how it’s been.”

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