As wildfires blaze in Hawaii, taking lives and displacing people from their homes, a Baltimore charity with strong ties to the state is worried about its workers there and bracing for damage to real estate it owns.
The Hawaii office of The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation — a private charity committed to helping people living in poverty — was not damaged by the fires, but donated $850,000 in grants to three organizations across the islands that will help those who have been affected, according to Arin Gencer, the foundation’s senior communications director.
“Our colleagues and, really, our family, they’re in Hawaii,” Gencer said. “Several of them do have family members and other loved ones who have been affected by the fires.”
Though the foundation’s main office is in Owings Mills, it holds commercial and tenant properties across Hawaii because of the founders’ connections to Honolulu: The city was “a place that was home to Harry Weinberg and his wife Jeanette for many, many years,” Gencer said.
The real estate holdings on the islands make up one-third of the investments that make grant-making possible, she said. Some of the properties under the charity are located in Maui, one of the affected islands. And while Gencer said she knows there have been damages to the foundation’s Maui real estate, she doesn’t yet know the full extent.
The wildfires spread this week across Maui due to parched conditions from a hot and dry summer, with strong winds from Hurricane Dora further fanning the flames. The death toll from the growing fires is 53, which makes this the deadliest wildfire in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.
Homes and towns on Maui were destroyed, leaving the island covered in ash and smoke. Some of the fires spread to the Big Island, but there were no reports of injuries or destruction there, the AP reported.
Gencer said the foundation typically responds in some way to emergency situations, including natural disasters, especially in the places where its founders have resided.
After July’s mass shooting in Brooklyn, the foundation responded by giving $250,000 to four local nonprofits that focus on mental health support, trauma-informed care and providing basic needs, Gencer said. They also gave grants to the communities affected in the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois, as well as communities in Florida after Hurricane Ian.
It’s part of their work as one of the nation’s largest charities: With $3.1 billion in assets, the foundation gives away $150 million in grants every year to support communities in Baltimore, Chicago, Hawaii, Israel, New York City, Northeastern Pennsylvania and San Francisco, according to their website.
Last year in Hawaii, the foundation gave away $12 million in grants, Gencer said.
Harry Weinberg, dubbed “Honolulu” Harry, was a Baltimore billionaire who died at 82 in 1990. He owned properties in Baltimore and Hawaii, as well as transit companies, and though known for his philanthropic giving, he was also criticized for being a neglectful landlord for his properties across Baltimore neighborhoods, according to a Baltimore Sun obituary.
Critics of Weinberg saw his properties in both Baltimore and Hawaii as real estate that destroyed historic areas. There was a proposed West Side Strategic Plan in 2000 that would have created a residential and urban business center stretching 100 blocks from Seton Hill to Mount Vernon, the Inner Harbor to Charles Center, to the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore.
Regarding the plan, one Baltimore resident wrote in 2000 to The Baltimore Sun that “‘Honolulu Harry’ Weinberg, the worst of absentee landlords, neglected the historic west-side buildings he owned.”
Gencer said there are no more properties in Maryland under the Weinberg foundation, but there are across Hawaii, and the foundation has a real estate team that actively checks on the tenants and facilities there.
“As far as Harry Weinberg’s legacy goes, I think that where he ultimately dedicated his wealth speaks to his values and what his goals and objectives were,” she said.
Gencer said the more than $800,000 in grants were the foundation’s initial response to help with Hawaii’s immediate needs, but she knows that there is more work to be done.
Hawaii Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund received a grant of $500,000 to provide shelter, food, financial aid and other necessary services. Vibrant Hawaii was given $250,000 to help connect Hawaii residents with available relief resources and long-term response efforts, and $100,000 was allocated to the Jewish Community Services of Hawaii to provide mental health, trauma-informed care and emergency funds to the state’s Jewish community.
“For us, long term, we’ll continue monitoring and assessing because we know that there’s going to be a lengthy recovery and it’s going to take time,” Gencer said. “It’s not something that’s going to get solved in four months or even potentially years in terms of rebuilding and restoration, so we know that it’s going to require longer-term investment not just from us but from all of our partners there.”
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is a donor to The Baltimore Banner.