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Hawaii lawmakers take aim at vacation rentals after Lahaina wildfire amplifies Maui housing crisis

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Hawaii lawmakers take aim at vacation rentals after Lahaina wildfire amplifies Maui housing crisis
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Hawaii lawmakers take aim at vacation rentals after Lahaina wildfire amplifies Maui housing crisis

2024-04-22 06:06 Last Updated At:06:11

HONOLULU (AP) — Amy Chadwick spent years scrimping and saving as a single mother of two to buy a house in the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But after a devastating fire leveled Lahaina in August and reduced Chadwick's home to white dust, the cheapest rental she and her now-husband could find for their family and dogs cost $10,000 a month.

Chadwick, a fine-dining server, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She’s worried Maui’s exorbitant rental prices, driven in part by vacation rentals that hog a limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town.

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This image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her neighborhood after a wildfire destroyed her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

HONOLULU (AP) — Amy Chadwick spent years scrimping and saving as a single mother of two to buy a house in the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But after a devastating fire leveled Lahaina in August and reduced Chadwick's home to white dust, the cheapest rental she and her now-husband could find for their family and dogs cost $10,000 a month.

This 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows where her home used to stand after a wildfire in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows where her home used to stand after a wildfire in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

FILE - The Rev. Ai Hironaka, resident minister of the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, walks in the parking lot as he visits his temple and residence destroyed by wildfire, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - The Rev. Ai Hironaka, resident minister of the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, walks in the parking lot as he visits his temple and residence destroyed by wildfire, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, center, points to damage as he speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell during a tour of wildfire damage, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE - Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, center, points to damage as he speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell during a tour of wildfire damage, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE - Carlos Lamas looks out to the sea from his spot at the "Fish-in" protest on, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Lahaina Strong has set up a "Fish-in" to protest living accommodations for those displaced by the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil, File)

FILE - Carlos Lamas looks out to the sea from his spot at the "Fish-in" protest on, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Lahaina Strong has set up a "Fish-in" to protest living accommodations for those displaced by the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil, File)

FILE - People walk by a tent with a "Lahaina Strong" flag, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at Whalers Village on Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii, as a group of wildfire survivors camps on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - People walk by a tent with a "Lahaina Strong" flag, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at Whalers Village on Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii, as a group of wildfire survivors camps on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Signs asking people to respect locals and that "Lahaina is not for sale" are seen on the side of the Lahaina Bypass, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Signs asking people to respect locals and that "Lahaina is not for sale" are seen on the side of the Lahaina Bypass, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Naldo Valentine, who lost his home to the Lahaina wildfire, puts up a light as darkness falls at a housing protest on Kaanapali Beach Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. A group of survivors were camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Naldo Valentine, who lost his home to the Lahaina wildfire, puts up a light as darkness falls at a housing protest on Kaanapali Beach Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. A group of survivors were camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE -A man sets up an umbrella in front of a Lahaina Strong informational sign, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE -A man sets up an umbrella in front of a Lahaina Strong informational sign, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Burned cars and propane tanks with markings on them sit outside a house destroyed by wildfire, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Burned cars and propane tanks with markings on them sit outside a house destroyed by wildfire, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

This 2021 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This 2021 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

Amy Chadwick poses her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses outside her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses outside her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses at her current home with her pets, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses at her current home with her pets, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

This July 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows the backyard of her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This July 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows the backyard of her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

Amy Chadwick, stands by map of Hawaii at her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick, stands by map of Hawaii at her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Most people in Lahaina work for hotels, restaurants and tour companies and can’t afford $5,000 to $10,000 a month in rent, she said.

“You’re pushing out an entire community of service industry people. So no one’s going to be able to support the tourism that you’re putting ahead of your community,” Chadwick said by phone from her new home in Satellite Beach on Florida’s Space Coast. “Nothing good is going to come of it unless they take a serious stance, putting their foot down and really regulating these short-term rentals.”

The Aug. 8 wildfire killed 101 people and destroyed housing for 6,200 families, amplifying Maui's already acute housing shortage and laying bare the enormous presence of vacation rentals in Lahaina. It reminded lawmakers that short-term rentals are an issue across Hawaii, prompting them to consider bills that would give counties the authority to phase them out.

Gov. Josh Green got so frustrated he blurted out an expletive during a recent news conference.

“This fire uncovered a clear truth, which is we have too many short-term rentals owned by too many individuals on the mainland and it is b———t,” Green said. “And our people deserve housing, here.”

Vacation rentals are a popular alternative to hotels for those seeking kitchens, lower costs and opportunities to sample everyday island life. Supporters say they boost tourism, the state's biggest employer. Critics revile them for inflating housing costs, upending neighborhoods and contributing to the forces pushing locals and Native Hawaiians to leave Hawaii for less expensive states.

This migration has become a major concern in Lahaina. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a nonprofit, estimates at least 1,500 households — or a quarter of those who lost their homes — have left since the August wildfire.

The blaze burned single family homes and apartments in and around downtown, which is the core of Lahaina's residential housing. An analysis by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found a relatively low 7.5% of units there were vacation rentals as of February 2023.

Lahaina neighborhoods spared by the fire have a much higher ratio of vacation rentals: About half the housing in Napili, about 7 miles (11 kilometers) north of the burn zone, is short-term rentals.

Napili is where Chadwick thought she found a place to buy when she first went house hunting in 2016. But a Canadian woman secured it with a cash offer and turned it into a vacation rental.

Also outside the burn zone are dozens of short-term rental condominium buildings erected decades ago on land zoned for apartments.

In 1992, Maui County explicitly allowed owners in these buildings to rent units for less than 180 days at a time even without short-term rental permits. Since November, activists have occupied the beach in front of Lahaina's biggest hotels to push the mayor or governor to use their emergency powers to revoke this exemption.

Money is a powerful incentive for owners to rent to travelers: a 2016 report prepared for the state found a Honolulu vacation rental generates 3.5 times the revenue of a long-term rental.

State Rep. Luke Evslin, the Housing Committee chair, said Maui and Kauai counties have suffered net losses of residential housing in recent years thanks to a paucity of new construction and the conversion of so many homes to short-term rentals.

“Every alarm bell we have should be ringing when we’re literally going backwards in our goal to provide more housing in Hawaii,” he said.

In his own Kauai district, Evslin sees people leaving, becoming homeless or working three jobs to stay afloat.

The Democrat was one of 47 House members who co-sponsored one version of legislation that would allow short-term rentals to be phased out. One objective is to give counties more power after a U.S. judge ruled in 2022 that Honolulu violated state law when it attempted to prohibit rentals for less than 90 days. Evslin said that decision left Hawaii's counties with limited tools, such as property taxes, to control vacation rentals.

Lawmakers also considered trying to boost Hawaii's housing supply by forcing counties to allow more houses to be built on individual lots. But they watered down the measure after local officials said they were already exploring the idea.

Short-term rental owners said a phase-out would violate their property rights and take their property without compensation, potentially pushing them into foreclosure. Some predicted legal challenges.

Alicia Humiston, president of the Rentals by Owner Awareness Association, said some areas in West Maui were designed for travelers and therefore lack schools and other infrastructure families need.

“This area in West Maui that is sort of like this resort apartment zone — that’s all north of Lahaina — it was never built to be local living,” Humiston said.

One housing advocate argues that just because a community allowed vacation rentals decades ago doesn't mean it still needs to now.

"We are not living in the 1990s or in the 1970s,” said Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii's Future. Counties “should have the authority to look at existing laws and reform them as necessary to provide for the public good.”

Courtney Lazo, a real estate agent who is part of Lahaina Strong, the group occupying Kaanapali Beach, said tourists can stay in her hometown now but many locals can't.

“How do you expect a community to recover and heal and move forward when the people who make Lahaina, Lahaina, aren’t even there anymore?” she said at a recent news conference as her voice quivered. “They’re moving away.”

This image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her neighborhood after a wildfire destroyed her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her neighborhood after a wildfire destroyed her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows where her home used to stand after a wildfire in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows where her home used to stand after a wildfire in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

FILE - The Rev. Ai Hironaka, resident minister of the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, walks in the parking lot as he visits his temple and residence destroyed by wildfire, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - The Rev. Ai Hironaka, resident minister of the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, walks in the parking lot as he visits his temple and residence destroyed by wildfire, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, center, points to damage as he speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell during a tour of wildfire damage, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE - Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, center, points to damage as he speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell during a tour of wildfire damage, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE - Carlos Lamas looks out to the sea from his spot at the "Fish-in" protest on, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Lahaina Strong has set up a "Fish-in" to protest living accommodations for those displaced by the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil, File)

FILE - Carlos Lamas looks out to the sea from his spot at the "Fish-in" protest on, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Lahaina Strong has set up a "Fish-in" to protest living accommodations for those displaced by the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil, File)

FILE - People walk by a tent with a "Lahaina Strong" flag, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at Whalers Village on Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii, as a group of wildfire survivors camps on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - People walk by a tent with a "Lahaina Strong" flag, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at Whalers Village on Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii, as a group of wildfire survivors camps on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Signs asking people to respect locals and that "Lahaina is not for sale" are seen on the side of the Lahaina Bypass, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Signs asking people to respect locals and that "Lahaina is not for sale" are seen on the side of the Lahaina Bypass, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Naldo Valentine, who lost his home to the Lahaina wildfire, puts up a light as darkness falls at a housing protest on Kaanapali Beach Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. A group of survivors were camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Naldo Valentine, who lost his home to the Lahaina wildfire, puts up a light as darkness falls at a housing protest on Kaanapali Beach Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. A group of survivors were camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE -A man sets up an umbrella in front of a Lahaina Strong informational sign, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE -A man sets up an umbrella in front of a Lahaina Strong informational sign, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Burned cars and propane tanks with markings on them sit outside a house destroyed by wildfire, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

FILE - Burned cars and propane tanks with markings on them sit outside a house destroyed by wildfire, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. An acute housing shortage hitting fire survivors on the Hawaiian island of Maui is squeezing out residents even as they try to overcome the loss of loved ones, their homes and their community. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

This 2021 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This 2021 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

Amy Chadwick poses her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses outside her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses outside her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses at her current home with her pets, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick poses at her current home with her pets, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

This July 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows the backyard of her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

This July 2023 image provided by Amy Chadwick shows the backyard of her home in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The home was destroyed in the Lahaina wildfire. Chadwick moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She's worried Maui's exorbitant rental prices, which she blames in part on vacation rentals hogging up limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town by similarly forcing others to leave. (Amy Chadwick via AP)

Amy Chadwick, stands by map of Hawaii at her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Amy Chadwick, stands by map of Hawaii at her current home Monday, April 8, 2024, in Satellite Beach, Fla. Chadwick, a victim of the fires in Hawaii moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars while she waits for her lot to be cleared and for permission to rebuild. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who skewered fast food industry, dies at 53

2024-05-24 23:38 Last Updated At:23:40

NEW YORK (AP) — Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, an Oscar nominee whose most famous works skewered America's food industry and who notably ate only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53.

Spurlock died Thursday in New York from complications of cancer, according to a statement issued Friday by his family.

“It was a sad day, as we said goodbye to my brother Morgan,” Craig Spurlock, who worked with him on several projects, said in the statement. “Morgan gave so much through his art, ideas, and generosity. The world has lost a true creative genius and a special man. I am so proud to have worked together with him.”

Spurlock made a splash in 2004 with his groundbreaking film “Super Size Me,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film chronicled the detrimental physical and psychological effects of Spurlock eating only McDonald’s food for 30 days. He gained about 25 pounds, saw a spike in his cholesterol and lost his sex drive.

“Everything’s bigger in America,” he said in the film. “We’ve got the biggest cars, the biggest houses, the biggest companies, the biggest food, and finally: the biggest people.”

In one scene, Spurlock showed kids a photo of George Washington and none recognized the Founding Father. But they all instantly knew the mascots for Wendy’s and McDonald’s.

The film grossed more than $22 million on a $65,000 budget and preceded the release of Eric Schlosser’s influential “Fast Food Nation,” which accused the industry of being bad for the environment and rife with labor issues.

Spurlock returned in 2019 with “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” — a sober look at an industry that processes 9 billion animals a year in America. He focused on two issues: chicken farmers stuck in a peculiar financial system and the attempt by fast-food chains to deceive customers into thinking they’re eating healthier.

“We’re at an amazing moment in history from a consumer standpoint where consumers are starting to have more and more power,” he told The Associated Press in 2019. “It’s not about return for the shareholders. It’s about return for the consumers.”

Spurlock was a gonzo-like filmmaker who leaned into the bizarre and ridiculous. His stylistic touches included zippy graphics and amusing music, blending a Michael Moore-ish camera-in-your-face style with his own sense of humor and pathos.

“I wanted to be able to lean into the serious moments. I wanted to be able to breathe in the moments of levity. We want to give you permission to laugh in the places where it’s really hard to laugh,” he told the AP.

After he exposed the fast-food and chicken industries, there was an explosion in restaurants stressing freshness, artisanal methods, farm-to-table goodness and ethically sourced ingredients. But nutritionally not much had changed.

“There has been this massive shift and people say to me, ‘So has the food gotten healthier?’ And I say, ‘Well, the marketing sure has,’” he said.

Not all his work dealt with food. Spurlock made documentaries about the boy band One Direction and the geeks and fanboys at Comic-Con. One of his films looked at life behind bars at the Henrico County Jail in Virginia.

With 2008's “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” Spurlock went on a global search to find the al-Qaida leader, who was killed in 2011. In “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” Spurlock tackled questions of product placement, marketing and advertising.

“Being aware is half the battle, I think. Literally knowing all the time when you’re being marketed to is a great thing,” Spurlock told AP at the time. “A lot of people don’t realize it. They can’t see the forest for the trees."

“Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” was to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 but it was shelved at the height of the #MeToo movement when Spurlock came forward to detail his own history of sexual misconduct.

He confessed that he had been accused of rape while in college and had settled a sexual harassment case with a female assistant. He also admitted to cheating on numerous partners. “I am part of the problem,” he wrote.

“For me, there was a moment of kind of realization — as somebody who is a truth-teller and somebody who has made it a point of trying to do what’s right — of recognizing that I could do better in my own life. We should be able to admit we were wrong,” he told the AP.

Spurlock grew up in Beckley, West Virginia. His mother was an English teacher who he remembered would correct his work with a red pen. He graduated with a BFA in film from New York University in 1993.

He is survived by two sons — Laken and Kallen; his mother Phyllis Spurlock; father Ben; brothers Craig and Barry; and former spouses Alexandra Jamieson and Sara Bernstein, the mothers of his children.

Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

FILE - Morgan Spurlock of the CNN series "Inside Man" poses at the CNN Worldwide All-Star Party, on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Morgan Spurlock of the CNN series "Inside Man" poses at the CNN Worldwide All-Star Party, on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Director Morgan Spurlock from the film "Focus Forward" poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival at the Fender Music Lodge on Jan. 21, 2013 in Park City, Utah. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Director Morgan Spurlock from the film "Focus Forward" poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival at the Fender Music Lodge on Jan. 21, 2013 in Park City, Utah. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock arrives at the premiere of "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

FILE - Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock arrives at the premiere of "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

FILE - Morgan Spurlock poses at the Los Angeles premiere of his film "Super Size Me," Thursday night, April 22, 2004, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

FILE - Morgan Spurlock poses at the Los Angeles premiere of his film "Super Size Me," Thursday night, April 22, 2004, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

FILE - Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock participate in the BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film, "Go North", at AOL Studios on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in New York. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock participate in the BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film, "Go North", at AOL Studios on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in New York. Spurlock, an Oscar-nominee who made food and American diets his life’s work, famously eating only at McDonald’s for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet, has died. He was 53. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

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