State eyes purchase of affordable complex after rent hike threats

(Image: Save Front Street Apartments/Facebook)
(Image: Save Front Street Apartments/Facebook)

LAHAINA, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - In West Maui, booming tourism is pushing up land values. And that may push out tenants at a large affordable housing complex.

Hundreds of tenants at Front Street Apartments are facing huge rent hikes — and many of them fear it could put them out on the streets.

"It was upsetting to hear that we will be forced out. There's really nowhere on Maui to go," said resident Barbara Henny.

Front Street Apartments is a 142-unit affordable rental project in Lahaina. It was expected to remain affordable for 51 years. But after 17 years, the owner is exercising a legal option to raise rents to "market value."

Many say that will force residents to move.

"The people who live in Front Street Apartments, they're disabled, majority of them are seniors, working families that work low-paying jobs at the hotels. To lose Front Street Apartments would be devastating to the Lahaina community," Maui resident Tiare Lawrence said.

A bill moving through the Legislature is offering some hope, though.

The proposal, which has passed the state House and is now before the Senate, could lead to the state buying the project to keep it affordable.

The attorney for the complex's owner says rising costs, including the land lease, has to be covered. He said the state missed its chance to buy the project three years ago for $15 million. Now, the owner wants the free market price, which is four times higher.

"It is inconceivable that the Legislature would be willing to pay as much as $60 million to maintain 142 low-cost rental units," William G. Meyer III's attorney said, in his written testimony.

"Legislation will send a message to potential low-cost housing developers that the State of Hawaii cannot be trusted," he added.

Henny said it's a scary debate for the tenants.

"I don't know where I would go. I'm purely on social security and a small pension and nothing is going up except the expenses."

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