Paradise Lost: What happened to the tenants of Ventura’s Hawaiian Village?

On the morning of December fifth the Thomas Fire destroyed Hawaiian Village, a 52-unit apartment building perched on the hillside just above Ventura. It burned to the ground in less than four hours.

Hawaiian Village was home to a tight knit community of 150 middle income, happy neighbors who lived in a time warp of cheap rent, 1960s architecture and a panoramic view of the coast. You could see from Point Mugu Rock to beyond C-Street.

(John Camilli)

Now, those residents face an unwelcoming housing market with few affordable options, and even less with a view or a built in community.

Priscilla Holmes lived at Hawaiian Village. “We were in unit 13, which was lucky for us for 16 years. This place had the best view. We took advantage of that view.”

A retired Ventura city worker, Holmes wanted to stay near downtown so she and her husband found a place at the Beachfronter along Ventura’s Promenade.

Priscilla Holmes and Rob Schleef stand where their front door once was. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

“It’s twice as much per month – $3,000 a month versus $1555. That’s what we have to do to stay here.”

Today there isn’t much left of Hawaiian Village – a few blackened palm trees, an empty koi pond. Clear water ripples across a kidney shaped pool. 

“They’re still cleaning up the dirt because of all the debris,”says Hawaiian Village property manager Jim Merritt, “There’s heavy metal. There was a bit of asbestos in the soil where the laundry room was, but that’s all clean. So, we’re just getting the final dirt out of there.”

Since the fire, the residents have relocated to communities around Ventura. A few decided to move out of California to Washington state and as far east as Philadelphia.

Some residents had called Hawaiian Village home for over 20 years. Rent was well below market rate and the complex had a welcoming vibe. It was a place to invite friends to, like Kat Merrick, who visited often.

“Every time you came up here and walked in — everyone was just friendly,” she said. “The people that lived here are the people who work in our community. A lot of the people who live in Hawaiian Village are your servers in your restaurants. They’re the workforce that makes things happen. This was a place where they could afford to live, and have an amazing place to live — and it’s gone.”

Merritt said the owner of the property plans to rebuild and residents will have first dibs if they want to return. Peggy Breese, a 23-year tenant, and her husband Tyler want to come back.

From left: Kat Merrick, Tyler Breese and Peggy Breese in front of what used to be Hawaiian Village. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

“The bubble we lived in here was like a different world. Tyler and I wanted to stay here until we died,” said Breese. “We used to sit and talk about what would we do if we couldn’t live here?  Where would we go? There’s not another place we’d want to be.”

According to Merritt, the reconstruction is on fast forward and the city of Ventura is promising speedy approval of building permits and inspections. He estimates the rebuild will take three to four years.

(John Camilli)

John Camilli, Merritt’s on-site property manager, hopes some of the Hawaiian Village residents will return, but doesn’t think many will be able to afford it. “The rents are going to go up,” he said, most likely by $500 to $1,000 a month.

“Like myself, a lot of these people are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

Breese says she and her husband are praying they can return, but refuse to dig too deep into their pensions to pay rent.

“If it’s too expensive we can’t come back. There’s just a certain limit to what you’re willing to pay.”