A series of wildfires on the island of Maui last week turned into the worst disaster the state of Hawai’i has faced in the 21st century. While the official death count has already reached 99, a staggering number (in the thousands) remain missing, and an estimated $6 billion in property was destroyed by the blazes. The most destructive fire had turned much of Lahaina, the royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1820-1845, to rubble.
In the aftermath of the disaster, San Francisco Chronicle senior NBA writer Connor Letourneau reached out to former Golden State Warriors head coach Don Nelson, who has lived in Maui since his retirement. In an article published on Monday, Letourneau reported that Nelson, his family, and 24 properties on the island were unharmed by the fires. In fact, he has been letting displaced residents stay in his 23 short-term rental properties following the fires for free.
Letourneau’s article allows Nelson to share his reactions to the disaster and also receive positive publicity for helping folks amidst the emergency. But rather than using Nelson’s celebrity as a conduit to a more holistic journalistic enterprise, it stops at a puff piece.
Yes, Nelson is helping people at this moment by providing free housing. However, giving him credit for this good deed requires an even larger dose of criticism for how he has the power to help in the first place. Nelson is part of a massive gentrification problem in the state, which is disproportionately forcing Native Hawaiians into houselessness and financial insecurity. Moreover, his investments have directly supported the tourism industry, which continues a longstanding colonialist history in Hawai’i that contributed to the severity of disaster unleashed upon Maui.
Lahaina was a wetland before plantation owners, the same folks who overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom and empowered the United States’ illegal annexation of Hawai’i, drained the biome to irrigate agricultural land. In the years since, wetlands have consistently been paved over to build tourist attractions, hotels, and vacation rentals.
Short-term rentals have taken 30,000 potential residences off the market in the state, fueling a housing emergency and significantly increasing home prices and rents for full-time residents. For context, 5,973 people experienced homelessness in Hawai’i last year, the fifth-highest per capita rate in the country.
In one of the cruelest and most expected developments since the fires, real estate investors have been reaching out to victims attempting to capitalize on the disaster by buying their properties at well below market rates (something that happened following both Hurricane Iwa and Iniki).
There is no reason to believe Nelson is among these particularly disgusting investors, but the pragmatics are not too dissimilar from the way real estate investment functioned in the state prior.
As Letourneau wrote in his story, “In 2011, shortly after settling in West Maui full-time following a Hall of Fame coaching career, Nelson started to invest in local real estate. What started as a side gig has blossomed into a thriving rental company.”
In other words, Nelson realized that he could use the millions of dollars he made as a head coach to outbid local residents for homes, take them off the residential market entirely, and profiteer off tourism.
Even in a less radical interpretation of tourism’s impact on Hawai’i, short-term rentals have another negative impact on the economy. As more folks turn to privately managed AirBnbs and Vrbos for their vacation stays, a smaller proportion of tourists are staying at hotels, playing a role in massive layoffs throughout the state that predated the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those most impacted by layoffs in the hotel industry are not people like Nelson. According to a 2018 analysis by the Hawaii Department of Business, the Accommodation and Food Services sector of the economy (where hotel workers are classified) was the largest single industry employer for all groups (including Native Hawaiians and Asian people) except whites. These disparities are likely even larger on Maui, which is more economically reliant on tourism than O’ahu, the state’s most populated island.
The Accommodation and Food Services sector was also one of the few industries where more than 45% of workers had not received any higher education, offering a rare professional path for folks who did not receive a college degree.
Hawai’i’s story is one of gentrification, something that no reporter in the Bay Area should be unfamiliar with. Yet, as Letourneau and other members of the staff shared the story, there was little mention of the darker side of Nelson’s investments.
Instead, The Chronicle’s sports editor Christina Kahrl shared the story on Twitter and commended Nelson as “a great example of someone in an emergency doing good things for others, even though they were themselves unaffected.” The Chronicle’s Editor-in-chief Emilio Garcia-Ruiz did the same, writing, “That time when a crisis brought out the best in people.”
Don Nelson's a great example of someone in an emergency doing good things for others, even though they were themselves unaffected, by leaning into what they could do to make a difference. From @Con_Chron https://t.co/UeDKxKv43J— Christina Kahrl (@ChristinaKahrl) August 15, 2023
That time when a crisis brought out the best in people. https://t.co/x9FRkpnCWq— Emilio Garcia-Ruiz (@garciaruize) August 15, 2023
If this crisis response is the best we think Nelson can do, we need to raise our standards. After all, nothing is stopping him from converting his superfluous properties into permanent homes for displaced renters who may not be able to afford to stay in Hawai’i following the disaster.
But even if we ignore that for a moment, as I wrote earlier, Nelson is doing a good thing right now. But I still cannot give him praise for his response to the Maui wildfires without equal or greater scorn for his reaction to the state’s longstanding housing disaster, which Governor John Green officially classified as an emergency earlier this year.
Why didn’t the housing crisis, which long predated the fires, lead Nelson to rethink his behavior?
The difference between this fiery disaster and the housing crisis is not just suddenness. The fires forced most tourists to evacuate and potential tourists to cancel plans. In other words, Nelson’s 23 properties were probably not going to be rented during this time anyway. By renting these properties for free, he could be in line for some form of tax deduction and/or credits.
Does the article mention that potential financial incentive for Nelson’s good deed? No.
Does it mention the critiques of short-term landlords, large-scale property owners, or even the issue of Native Hawaiian displacement? No.
Does it mention ANY residents of Maui (a county that is only 34.6% white) who are not white? No. It mentions Nelson, his wife, his daughter, the late Bob Longhi, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and Owen Wilson.
There’s nothing wrong with a Bay Area sports writer using Nelson’s celebrity and proximity to a recent disaster to tell a story. But Letourneau’s article not only acts as a puff piece for short-term rental owners in Hawai’i, but it also frames a wealthy white resident as a hero for doing something that he only has the power to do because of his wealth.
But I guess it’s fitting that this article was published on Monday, the same day that former NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher filed a lawsuit against the Touhy family for manipulating him to profit from his story in what eventually became a book by Michael Lewis’ that was eventually turned into “The Blind Side,” a film that grossed over $300 million. After all, if there’s one thing American media loves, it’s a white savior.
If you have the means to aid those impacted by the Maui wildfires, here are a list of ways to try and help:
-Donate directly to impacted folks via this mutual aid spreadsheet.
-Donate to the Grants Central Station Maui Mutual Aid Fund.
-Donte to the Hawai’i community foundation.
-Sign this petition to protect residents and prioritize Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) in the rebuilding of Maui.
-Send resources to one of these drop off locations.
-Go here if you have housing to offer displaced folks.