Ohana Hope Village was supposed to host 88 tiny homes rent-free for two years for people displaced by the August wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, but the project has been stalled for months, tangled in red tape. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

KAHULUI, Hawaii — Nesi and LJ Va’a pass the place where their new home should be at least once a day. They say a quick prayer as they drive by. At this point, that’s pretty much all they can do.

The couple and three of their kids fled Lahaina on foot as their apartment burned in the August wildfires. They lost everything but the clothes they were wearing – and each other.

Since then, like thousands of other West Maui families, they’ve been living in American Red Cross shelters at local hotels, and they’ve been shuffled between facilities seven times as the resorts make space for the slow return of tourists to the island.

The plot they now pray over promised stability. The site, vacant land owned by a nearby Christian church, was supposed to host 88 tiny homes, newly constructed to provide two years of rent-free housing for 350 fire survivors. And for months, dozens of the structures have stood on the dusty tract near Maui’s main airport, ready for displaced families to move in.

But the project has been tangled in red tape.

The saga of this 10-acre development, overseen by a local social services organization called Family Life Center, offers a window into the often-maddening world of building affordable housing on Maui, where a notoriously long permitting process and a thicket of regulations has stalled projects for decades. Even now, after apocalyptic fires made the already dire housing crisis worse, residents and advocates say the same old delays are preventing small houses from solving a big problem.


“We felt like, since this is an emergency, the process would be fairly easy,” said Maude Cumming, CEO of the Family Life Center, which is overseeing the tiny home development. “But when we asked for direction, it was difficult to get.” Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

“Man, if we had this, it would be perfect,” Nesi Va’a, who was born and raised in Lahaina, said of the Family Life Center project. “The frustrating part is not knowing who to go to. Where’s the answer?”

More than six months after the fires, some 4,700 people are still living in hotels and desperate for more permanent housing. And after 3,000 structures burned, housing options are more limited than ever and prices are at an all-time high. Experts disagree on just how large a role tiny homes can play in alleviating the crunch, but they say that in an unprecedented emergency like this, the island must pursue every means possible to get residents housed.

“If you have a large family, there’s simply no housing that’s anywhere near affordable,” said Justin Tyndall, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization. “These problems existed before the fire but are now being highlighted even more. It’s an existential crisis for Maui. Many people have already left and will continue to leave.”

“Man, if we had this, it would be perfect,” Nesi Va’a, who was displaced with her family by the wildfires, said of the tiny home project. “The frustrating part is not knowing who to go to. Where’s the answer?” Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

In the weeks following the fires, as the totality of Lahaina’s devastation set in, the prospect of inexpensive housing that could be quickly constructed gave many people hope.

Nationwide, the market for these structures has boomed in recent years. Offerings range from a traditional tiny house, which is typically under 400 square feet and could be mounted on a trailer, to more substantial accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “ohanas” in Hawaii, and larger modular homes that top 1,000 square feet.

Right away, nonprofits and neighbors began planning for hundreds of units, in clustered developments and backyards.


“The need for housing was huge,” said James Bruggeman, who owns the Maui firm AAA Tiny Homes. “And those of us who live on the island knew that tiny homes were the only solution that could be provided in a timely manner.”

But reality soon set in.

In Maui County, tiny homes fall into a legal gray area, housing advocates said. Like other dwellings, they are subject to restrictive local zoning laws and legendarily long permitting waits. On top of that, most are prefabricated, a type of structure the state has long opposed in deference to the powerful local construction industry.

Workers are pictured at the tiny home development. Dozens of the structures have stood on the dusty tract near Maui’s main airport, ready for displaced families to move in. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

Kamie Davis, a Maui-based consultant who advises tiny home developments, said she’s working on four properties that would together bring more than 500 units online, but they’ve each faced delays at the county, which she blames for failing to establish a specific tiny home policy.

“If we would have done what we could have done from the very get-go, we would have at least 3,000 homes on the ground today, and we don’t,” Davis said. “We have maybe a couple hundred. It’s nothing compared to where we should be right now because they choked, they didn’t move forward.”

While officials have offered few details about tiny houses, the county has taken steps to encourage ADU construction and streamline the building process for wildfire survivors by hiring staff to focus on expedited permitting. And local leaders have earmarked $8 million to buy 50 interim dwellings for displaced families.


The state also signaled that prefab homes would have to be a part of the island’s recovery, and Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said he’s talking with the federal government about building up to 1,000 prefab modular houses.

“Through our different partners, we’re trying to expand the inventory,” he said in a recent local TV interview. “That’s really the key.”

Yuki Lei Sugimura, Maui County Council’s vice chair and a supporter of tiny home projects, said these new steps are encouraging.

“I believe that government probably did not have all the resources, or understand all the things we needed to do” immediately after the fire, Sugimura said. “But we have a better understanding now.”

LJ Va’a, on left, and Nesi Va’a pray with their children at a Red Cross-sponsored dinner. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

Still, time is running out to avoid two major “housing cliffs,” said Matt Jachowski, the director of data, technology and innovation at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. Maui currently houses fire survivors in two primary ways: the hotel shelters and a program that pays premium rates to secure long-term leases at short-term vacation rentals.

If not extended, the hotel program will end in April. Funding for the vacation rentals, which comes largely from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be phased out over the next two years.


“The only way we’ll have any place for these people to go is if we have these ADUs built,” Jachowski said. “We’re going to need to build a lot of new ones – like thousands of new ones.”

Leivaha Kuresa gives a hug to her stepfather, LJ Va’a, in the parking lot of the hotel where they are living. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

One additional obstacle to construction is the question of what happens to the homes after the current crisis ends. Some funders have been unwilling to invest in projects that may only be allowed for a few years, while development-wary community members worry that emergency subdivisions could eventually be replaced by luxury homes, which would only exacerbate the affordability crisis.

Officials have stressed that many of the units would be temporary, and advocates say the county could address those concerns through careful legislation.

“You have to do something now to house people and figure out the knock-on effects once you’ve solved the core problem,” Jachowski said.

Tyndall, the economist, is skeptical that tiny homes and ADUs alone can solve the problem, but he said they should be part of the county’s long-term strategy, alongside larger multifamily housing developments.

“There’s no reason not to work to expand ADUs,” he said. “But in terms of the overall quantity of housing that gets built, that’s going to be only one part of the solution. It should be an ‘all of the above’ approach.”


From left, Nesi Va’a, daughters Sikuka Kuresa and Leivaha Kuresa, and LJ Va’a in the hotel room where they are living. The family misses the familiarity of their home. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

The Family Life Center development, located on the grounds of a former sugar cane field in the central Maui town of Kahului, was the first high-profile project underway after the fire.

It received international attention, but soon after the spotlight faded, the project became a poster child for postponement. The first units arrived on the island within weeks of the August fire, and the center hoped families would be able to move in by October.

“We felt like, since this is an emergency, the process would be fairly easy,” said Maude Cumming, Family Life Center’s CEO. “But when we asked for direction, it was difficult to get.”

Cumming, who has worked in affordable housing for more than two decades, said the project has run into delays at nearly every step, from historic preservation rules to septic system regulations and water pressure requirements for the units’ fire suppression sprinkler system. She wants to comply with all codes, she said, but she’s been frustrated at the pace of approval.

“I just thought there would be a different kind of urgency,” Cumming said.

The latest hurdle involves an arcane dispute over the project’s water source. An influential real estate company and its business park development controls the closest water line, and Family Life Center said it had rebuffed access requests.


This again delayed the move-in date, Cumming said, because it forced Family Life Center to bore underground to reach another water source. But after The Washington Post began reporting on the back-and-forth, the real estate company, Alexander & Baldwin, contacted Cumming and agreed to help Family Life Center temporarily access the water line, she said.

“We fully support the FLC project and have offered to work with FLC to explore ways to get water to the homes so that they can be made available to the displaced families sooner rather than later,” Alexander & Baldwin spokeswoman Andrea Galvin said in a statement. She added that it is “a complex matter and will require the approval of several other parties.”

Cumming now hopes fire survivors will be able to move into the tiny homes by the end of the month.

Whenever it happens, it will be a moment that Nesi and LJ Va’a have been awaiting since they fled Lahaina on the day of the fire. The couple, along with children who range in age from 10 to 16, miss the familiarity of their home, and the way it smelled.

And in a time of constant change, they miss the routines that brought the family together, like sitting around on Saturday, planning out the week’s meals on a dry-erase board.

Nesi Va’a, left, and her husband, LJ Va’a, say their night prayers with their children. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

At the Family Life Center development, known as Ohana Hope Village, they’ll have a place of their own, a kitchen, some normalcy. The units are spartan – no more than 500 square feet, metal walls and a spare interior – but the Va’as know firsthand how badly their community needs them.

Nesi and LJ Va’a have been working as disaster case managers at Family Life Center since late last year, and every day, they talk to people like themselves who are anxious about where they’ll live while their town is rebuilt.

“People would move in here today if they could,” LJ Va’a said. “The 80-plus homes we have could be filled in a half an hour. The need is dire.”

When they talk to the long list of fellow fire survivors who have applied for a spot in the tiny home village, the question they hear is always the same: When can we move in? They’re not sure how to reply, but they’re praying it will be soon.

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