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Stronger transient vacation rental enforcement for a better community

OUR COUNTY

The housing shortage in Maui County isn’t due just to the high cost of land and materials, lagging infrastructure, or complex regulations governing new home construction. It’s also because so many people want to visit Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

When tourism came to Maui during the late 1970s, then Mayor Elmer Cravalho touted planned resort areas in West and South Maui as a way to provide good jobs for residents without disrupting the mostly simple, rural lifestyle that came to be during our plantation era. Nobody then could have possibly predicted the changes that four more decades would bring to the industry.

Once the internet met Maui’s reputation as a premier visitor destination, our best laid plans started sliding down a slippery slope. Carefully designed plans to seclude residential neighborhoods from commercial activities eroded with the arrival of online portals that made it easy to rent out private homes to vacationers.

In recent years, the desire to capitalize on Maui’s global “brand” has fueled a frenzy of investment in real estate meant for residents. Offshore interests, including individuals, corporations and real estate investment trusts have been buying up island homes or condos to use or convert them into transient vacation uses. The bad news is that as supply drops, demand grows and so does the price of homes, condos and monthly rental rates. The worst news is long-term tenants get kicked out in favor of short-term renters only to discover there is no place for them to move into.

Maui County government is challenged with regulating transient vacation rentals. The approach I prefer is to temporarily halt issuing any new permits for all Maui transient accommodations including hotels, timeshares, short-term rental homes and condo-style vacation rentals not already operating in areas zoned for this purpose.

Such a pause would allow Maui County the time to determine how best to manage and regulate all transient accommodations with a long-term, islandwide view. This comprehensive approach can help the County avoid a mishmash of temporary regulatory fixes aimed at specific areas.

On July 30, I signed agreements with Expedia (the parent company of VRBO-Vacation Rentals by Owner, hotels.com and other platforms) and Airbnb — the industry’s leading TVR marketing portals. Both companies have agreed to require Tax Map Key numbers and other identifying details to be included in all listed Maui County properties. This will help to smoke out unpermitted operators, make it easier to enforce existing laws and impose penalties, and block cheaters from future listings on the platforms owned by these companies.

But there are other websites and rogue operators who try to game the system. To find them, our Planning Department contracted with a specialized vendor that runs daily searches of dozens of vacation rental websites and tens of thousands of listings of unpermitted TVRs in Maui County. Local inspectors investigate these leads similar to formal complaints filed by neighbors. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of bad actors out there.

Council Member Kelly King recently forwarded a letter to my office that was mailed to a homeowner in her district. The opening sentence read: “Have you thought of using your Kihei home as a vacation rental, but don’t know where to start? A crucial step is figuring out how much you can charge for a night in your home.” The soliciting company conveniently failed to mention that the most crucial step is to first get a permit.

Maui’s short-term rental debate began years ago as an earnest attempt to help local families supplement their incomes. Ironically, it has since become an effective way to displace them.

Solving the TVR problem will require unprecedented collaboration and cooperation between my administration, the Maui County Council, the State Legislature, and all community stakeholders who support the principle that Maui County is a community first, a visitor destination second.

You can be sure that all efforts to contain the growing TVR menace will be met with vigorous opposition from well-funded and highly organized special interest groups. Your representatives will need your voices to drown these groups out so we have laws and regulations that work for our citizens.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael victorino, discusses county issues and government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.

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