Roberta Lespinasse always paid rent on time for her cottage in Haiku, where she lived since 2017 with her dog, Nohea. But on an early January morning, there was a knock on the door.
Her landlord had come to tell her he wanted to sell the house. As he spoke, her heart raced. Ever since she moved to Maui from Brazil 30 years ago, she knew how hard it could be to find an affordable rental home. And she’d heard the horror stories about how bad things became after a wave of digital nomads with mainland salaries descended on Maui during the pandemic, driving prices way up.
“I’m going to go homeless,” she thought.
Lespinasse, 52, works as a housecleaner, lives alone and can afford to spend about $1,800 on rent each month. She also has Nohea, a pitbull mix, that makes finding a home that much more difficult. But after both of her parents died recently, he’s the only family she has left. Nohea will turn 9 in July, and she’s had him since he was a 7-week-old puppy.
There’s no way she’d ever abandon him, she said.
“I contemplated getting an RV … or I could live in my truck,” she said. “Because I am not the kind of person who would leave my dog behind.”
These days, it’s hard for anyone to find a rental home on Maui. And landing a lease is even more daunting for pet owners: In a market where rentals are in short supply, and landlords often receive dozens of applications within hours of posting properties online, why would they need to accept pets?
The lack of housing options for pet owners has long been an issue across the state. On Oahu, the Hawaiian Humane Society has advocated for getting rid of pet size and breed restrictions, while providing renters with support to help them hold onto their pets when experiencing financial hardship.
Meanwhile on Kauai, the humane society’s spokesperson said its shelter stays full — and often over capacity — because of “too many pets and not enough pet-friendly housing.”
But the issue is now particularly acute in Maui County, where the No. 1 reason that families give up their pets to the Maui Humane Society is because they have to move and can’t keep their four-legged family members.
Like social workers serving nonprofits that help house humans, animal shelter staff also bear witness to the island’s housing crisis. They’re ones who watch children cry when forced to give up the family dog because of no-pet policies, or scramble to provide kibble to pet owners living paycheck to paycheck, who might otherwise forgo their own groceries.
Last year, when the nationwide eviction moratorium ended, the Maui Humane Society saw an influx of pets, especially dogs, when their owners were forced out of homes. At the height, the shelter said it took in about 120 dogs; ideally, its kennels would house about 20.
Shelter employees know there will always be a surge of surrenders at the end of each month — when the clock runs out for families needing to be out by the first, some of whom inevitably end up crashing with relatives in cramped living conditions that don’t have room for pets, too.
Then there are the residents who jeopardize their own safety for their animals: Like the grocery store worker who paid for his three cats to be boarded in a kennel after his rental home for 13 years in Pukalani was sold. He hadn’t been able to find a place that would rent to him and the cats, so he moved into his car.
“We run into that sort of thing, at least weekly,” said Julie Durham, the Maui Humane Society’s pet retention coordinator, whose job is to help families hold on to their pets.
Durham is currently studying to get a master’s degree in veterinary social work, a growing field aimed at addressing the intersection of humans’ and animals’ needs, which can be driven by poverty, food insecurity and a lack of affordable housing. Her position at the shelter is relatively new, added in response to Maui’s sky-high unemployment rate during the pandemic.
She’s charged with supporting owners by providing them pet food, supplies and linking them with social services across the community; lately, she’s found that many of those in need are kupuna. If the need arises, she can offer resources to help them find new families to take in their pets and can also provide advice on how to work with landlords to accept them, if they get lucky enough to score a rental showing.
Shelter staff try to educate tenants and landlords about compromises they can make to accommodate pets — for example, putting together a pet agreement that says owners must pay for any potential damages their pets cause; showing that pets have gone through obedience training; purchasing pet liability insurance; or agreeing to certain conditions, like not leaving pets unattended outside or routinely spraying properties for fleas.
The problem, however, is that there isn’t an incentive for landlords to accept pets, she said.
Even if Maui renters make it to the top of affordable housing waitlists, there’s no guarantee they’ll get to keep their cats and dogs because there isn’t a requirement that government-funded projects accept them. Properties can make their own rules.
In the private market, meanwhile, the costs of pet-friendly housing are often beyond families’ financial reach: In Hawaii, landlords can charge pet rent, on top of regular rent, plus ask for a separate pet deposit of up to one month’s rent — the equivalent of paying three months’ rent at once.
“They’re not allowing pets most often unless they’re just animal lovers,” Durham said.
But even for Maui renters earning middle-class salaries, finding housing is still hard. Kawika Marko, who runs a tutoring business and nonprofit, said his friends who’ve worked as nurses and police officers have recently struggled to find places to live.
Now, the 53-year-old is in the same position: His landlord told him that he was renovating, then possibly selling, his 800-square-foot cottage in Kihei that rents for $2,100 a month. Marko and his miniature schnauzer, Holo Holo, have to be out by the end of March.
Marko was born on Maui and has deep roots in the community, but after asking friends and family to work the coconut wireless, he still only found three rentals that might’ve worked since he started looking two weeks ago. By the time he applied, they were already gone.
“A lot of people just go OK, well I’ll leave,” Marko said. “No — this is my home; I’m not being pushed out.”
“If I have to sleep on the beach with my dog, ” he added, “that’s what I’ll be doing.”
Housing has always been expensive on Maui, but in the last two years, the median sales price for a home jumped nearly 50% — to more than $1 million, according to real estate data.
Yet the typical full-time, year-round worker’s earnings hover around $46,000 per year, according to census estimates.
Jamie-Sue West, a landlord in Kihei who runs a Facebook group called “Dog-Friendly Home Rentals on Maui,” watched firsthand as the housing crisis spiraled out of control.
Before the pandemic, she used to get a handful of requests each week to join the group from pet owners moving from the mainland. Then the number skyrocketed to as many as 25 a day — more than she was receiving from locals.
“Because people are coming here from the mainland and they’re getting mainland salaries, they’re able to offer hugely higher rents than our local people working in the hospitality industry,” West said.
After watching so many locals get priced out, like one woman who lost her rental when the landlord raised the rent from $2,500 to $4,900, West said she polled the 1,400 members: Should the group continue admitting prospective residents from outside of Maui?
The resounding winner: “It is hard enough to find housing, let’s keep it to current residents.”
“I want to give those people a chance,” West said.
Lespinasse, who’d been told to move weeks before West posted the poll in the group, was one of the residents who voted to make it locals only. In the two months since her landlord delivered the notice to leave, she’s called and emailed dozens of rental ads — too many to count. She’s toured a few, but each time has gotten the text shortly after that the landlord already picked someone else.
For now, she and Nohea are crashing at a friend’s house. But that’s only temporary, because her friend also hopes to sell in a few months. Lespinasse is praying she’ll find something before then, even if it’s just a studio. Ideally, it needs to be single-level; Nohea is older and his hips are bad.
“He loves people. He likes other dogs. He likes cats,” said Lespinasse. “He is a very gentle soul.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.