Lanikai fights not-so-civil war about vacation rentals
It's the beauty of Lanikai, that residential enclave just beyond Kailua Beach, that has always lured pilgrims in search of paradise. They walk down the pathways to the crescent beach. They stand in the flour-fine sand and look out to the Mokulua Islands. This is the picture-postcard moment of their vacation.
But for this local girl who twice has called Lanikai home -- once because I was raised there, once because I returned -- it is childhood memory, heritage and even a sacred trust. When I left Hawaii to make my way in the world, going to my "happy place" was always thinking back to Lanikai. Now? Not so much.
Lovely Lanikai is in a turf war as ugly as that of any inner city. On one side are residents who call it home and who want it to remain a "bedroom community." On the other are business owners who want it to be a tourist mecca and rent out those bedrooms -- however illegally -- as bed-and-breakfasts or vacation houses. They market us as a destination in the same way they do resort-zoned Waikiki. Pick up any travel magazine and read about Lanikai Beach, named one of the world's best.
I open up my door to see the consequences: Streams of strangers headed to and from that beach -- a beach with no lifeguards or public facilities. If not renting accommodations, the visitors are day-tripping by car. Or they are brought by tour vans, stretch limos, eco-tour companies, dive operations and kayak trailers already trolling the two-mile Lanikai "loop." There is no public parking, but they park anyway, even in the bike lane.
This transient incursion erodes "quiet peace and enjoyment," destroys community and lures speculators who flip homes with no thought of how they help drive tax assessments or the housing crisis. Who cares when your new investment pulls in $2,000 a day? Why worry about booting long-term tenants when you've tripled your monthly income with multiple vacation rentals of less than 30 days? Just write fake contracts, have your "guests" pay in travelers checks or cash, and coach them to lie to city inspectors -- too few and far between, despite the mayor's campaign promise to hire more.
Lanikai is under siege; it has been dubbed the "ground zero" of the fight against illegal transient vacation rentals. Of our 750-plus homes, some 135 are TVRs, according to a 2005 study partly funded by the illegals themselves. That's nearly one in five homes. The beachfront ratio is more than one out of three. Since only 15 Lanikai TVRs are legal -- operating with non-conforming use certificates -- the others try to stay under the radar.
Still, residents have identified about 100. From my front porch, I see four. The loss of homes from our residential market has taken such a toll that of the 324 children who attend Lanikai Elementary School, only nine actually live here.
Speaking of which, half of the illicit rentals are owned by off-shore investors: doctors, lawyers, family trusts, corporations and even a Swiss concern. One California developer had safes installed in his property's bedrooms, the better to appeal to high-end vacationers. A few houses down, another investor put his new property back on the market for $2 million more before the ink was even dry on the escrow papers. For now it's yet another illegal vacation rental.
So no longer is Lanikai a level playing -- er, living -- field. We have two kinds of properties: homes and transient accommodations. Two kinds of inhabitants: residents and vacationers. Worse still: those who obey zoning laws and those who don't. Does this pit neighbor against neighbor? You bet.
After lobbying against illegal TVRs, my fence was egged and I was warned, "You're making enemies you don't want to make." Organizers who fought Resolution 187 -- the repeal of the B&B ban -- were dubbed "invidious." Whistle blowers have been ostracized by those who think reporting a neighbor smacks of "Nazi-ism." Never mind that the scofflaws weren't being very neighborly when they decided to open up shop.
Sadly, things have gone beyond name-calling. Vindictive operators have asked the police to investigate whether neighbors are harassing their "guests." A woman was even slapped with a restraining order after her efforts to close the virtual rooming house behind her. This may be a civil war, but it ain't so civil.
Bottom line: Vacation rentals barter residential tranquility while simultaneously corrupting it. Yet this "cottage industry," by proliferating illegally, is a proven growth industry. Growth will only take an ever bigger bite out of Lanikai until the very qualities so desired are lost forever. No longer should vacation rentals be seen simply as more business and thus more money into city and state coffers. A savvy businessman counts the cost and the cost in social capital is too high.
Is Lanikai really "lost"? Some kamaaina, saddened by the neighborhood's deterioration or saddled with annual thousand-dollar property tax hikes, are agonizing about whether to move. House-hunting friends of mine scouted Lanikai and were alarmed enough by the traffic and noise to rule it out. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
To paraphrase the World War II poem by Martin Niemoller:
First the illegal B&Bs and vacation rental homes were in Lanikai, but I didn't live in Lanikai, so I didn't say anything.
Then they were in Waimanalo, but I didn't live in Waimanalo, so I didn't say anything.
Then they were on the North Shore, but I didn't live on the North Shore, so I didn't say anything.
Then they were in my neighborhood ... but there was no one left to say anything.
Kalana Best is a lifetime member of the Lanikai Association. She also is involved with Keep It Kailua and Save Oahu's Neighborhoods.