In a grotesque demonstration of predatory real estate practices, investors are reportedly contacting victims of the deadly Maui fires to purchase their properties. In an interview with NBC News, resident Tiare Lawrence told anchor Katy Tur that realtors have been calling those displaced by the fire, which has thus far killed more than 95 people with more than 1,000 unaccounted for, and destroyed 2,200 structures, particularly in the historic community of Lahaina.

“Homeowners have been reached out by investors and realtors offering to buy their land. And this is disgusting. And we just want to make sure that people around the world understand our situation and know that Lahaina is not for sale,” Lawrence said.

Her sentiments were echoed in an Instagram video yesterday that has since gone viral, in which Lawrence—who works for Mahi Pono, a regenerative farming company, and also represents Kāko’o Haleakalā, a nonprofit organization focused on land and species conservation in Hawaii—indicated that displaced residents are being contacted and “being offered money from investors.”

“I am so frustrated with investors and realtors calling the families who lost their home [sic] offering to buy their land. How dare you do that to our community right now,” she said. Though it hasn’t been revealed who is making these calls, in the video, Lawrence asks anyone receiving them to collect the names of callers and their businesses so they can “put them on blast.”

The disaster has been a spotlight on the various ways that climate change and histories of colonialism and indigenous displacement have born out in Hawaii. Since the fire, celebrity tourist sightings and monetary donations from ultra-wealthy Maui landowners like Jeff Bezos have also highlighted the vast disparities between the state’s rich and poor. Speculation such as this has long occurred after disasters, but it rings particularly disturbing in places like Hawaii that have exacerbated inequality and histories of extraction, where the cost of living for native Hawaiians has become increasingly challenging.

In September 2005, less than a month after New Orleans was brutalized by Hurricane Katrina, the Los Angeles Times published a story detailing the outpouring of interest in purchasing homes “in any condition”: “Hurricane Katrina seems to have taken a vibrant real estate market and made it hotter. Large sections of the city are underwater, but that’s only increasing the demand for dry houses. And in flooded areas, speculators are trying to buy properties on the cheap,” wrote reporter David Streitfeld. “This land rush has long-term implications in a city where many of the poorest residents were flooded out. It raises the question of what sort of housing—if any—will be available to those without a six-figure salary.”

This type of predation isn’t isolated to specific geographies suffering the effects of climate disasters; they also have preyed on those facing personal or familial difficulties. This year, a ProPublica investigation of HomeVestors—one of the country’s largest franchised real estate flippers known for their “We Buy Ugly Homes” signs—discovered patterns of deception in real estate transactions that led to homes being sold for well under their actual value. Reporters found that franchises often preyed upon the elderly, disabled, and “those so close to poverty that they feared homelessness would be a consequence of selling.”

According to ProPublica, HomeVestors advertises to consumers in strategic locations “near homes slammed by hurricanes or charred by wildfires.” They also send mailers, “blanketing ZIP codes with a high concentration of homeowners who have lots of equity… postcards sent to people that public records indicate have recently divorced or had a death in the family.” They target digital ads “to people in the vicinity of nursing homes and rehabilitation hospitals. The goal was to catch families who needed to sell assets so Medicaid would pay their nursing home costs.”

So while Maui residents are just the latest targets of real estate’s shameful pastime of disaster profiteering, Lawrence has some advice: “If you’re a victim, trust that we are going to rebuild Lahaina. Please don’t [sell]. I know it’s hard and it may feel a lot easier to just want to move to the continent but we cannot keep displacing our people. We need to make sure you guys can go back home.”

Top photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty.

Related Reading:

Deciding to Rebuild After a Fire Is Just the First Step

Is There a Way Out of Hawaii’s Housing Crisis?

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