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EXPLAINER: Will Pricey Hawaiʻi Do Enough to Limit Evictions Come Aug. 6?

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HONOLULU — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses. Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the federal delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Hawaiʻi has its own moratorium imposed by an emergency declaration from Gov. David Ige. It's due to last through Aug. 6, giving local renters an extra week to get ready. Ige said he hopes measures to encourage landlord-tenant mediation, efforts to get people back to work and rent-relief programs will help the situation.

Here’s the situation in Hawaiʻi:

What's being done to help people facing eviction?

Hawaiʻi’s counties are providing federal relief money to those needing help covering their rent and utility bills. In Honolulu, the city's rental and utility relief program has awarded $44.8 million to 5,540 households. It expects to have $180 million to distribute through September 2022.

Hawaiʻi this year enacted legislation encouraging landlords and tenants to mediate disputes as a means to prevent evictions. The new law also aims to stop an avalanche of cases overwhelming the courts when the moratorium expires.

The Conversation sat down with Tracey Wiltgen, executive director of the Mediation Center of the Pacific, to learn more about the legislation and how it changes eviction procedures.

It requires landlords to notify a mediation center if they are terminating a rental agreement to prevent landlords from going directly to court. It also delays when a landlord may take possession of a unit if a tenant schedules mediation, potentially giving tenants time to work things out. The measure allocates funds to mediators who may negotiate rent reductions and payment plans and help landlords and tenants obtain rental assistance money.

Aloha United Way has been training staff who answer its 211 helpline on the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. They are ready to refer people to mediators and places where they can apply for rental assistance.

Lisa Kimura, who oversees Aloha United Way’s COVID-19 response programs, said mediation programs have successfully kept people housed in the past. She hopes that will be the case under the new law.

How are the courts handling eviction hearings?

The existing moratorium currently prohibits evictions because a tenant has fallen behind on their rent.

Ray Kong, director of litigation at Lawyers for Equal Justice, said he has heard of landlords attempting to get around the moratorium by filing broad cases to evict people for damaging property or otherwise violating lease terms. If tenants don’t show up in court to answer these cases, a default judgement may be issued against them. Kong said it’s vital that tenants show up in court so a judge can determine whether a case should go to mediation.

How affordable is housing in the state's major rental markets?

Hawaiʻi is a notoriously expensive place to live. There’s a limited supply of housing given population growth has outpaced housing development for decades. Many of the state’s jobs are in hospitality businesses like hotels and restaurants that don’t pay well, making it a challenge for many to afford housing even when there is no pandemic or economic crisis.

So far in July, the median monthly rent for Oʻahu units advertised on Craiglist was $1,900, higher than $1,825 marked in March 2020 before rents fell during the pandemic, according to data compiled by Justin Tyndall, assistant professor of economics at the University of Hawaiʻi’s Economic Research Organization. The median rent dipped to $1,600 in December before rebounding.

Ricky Cassiday, an independent real estate market analyst, said rental prices on other islands like Maui have gone up more given tourism has rebounded faster there than on Oʻahu. That’s because the robust pace of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. has fueled a surge in tourists from the mainland, who dominate travel to those islands. Oʻahu, meanwhile, is normally also heavily visited by travelers from Japan, South Korea and Australia, where vaccinations have lagged.

The highest median price for a single-family home in Hawaii last month was in Maui County at more than $1.1 million.

Are evictions expected to create a surge in homelessness?

Nicky Winter, the executive director of Achieve Zero, which is contracted by the state to provide services to the homeless from ʻAiea to Kapolei and Mililani to Oʻahu’s North Shore, said she is concerned the expiration of the eviction moratorium will lead to a spike in homelessness.

“I don’t know that anybody can fully prepare for the onslaught of those that will be in trouble come August when the moratorium ends,” she said.

During the pandemic, her agency received 15 to 20 calls a day from people seeking help paying rent compared with four to five calls a week before COVID-19. One caller was behind $24,000, or 10 months' worth.

Even if Achieve Zero is able to help an evicted family find new housing, she noted the tenants will still be responsible for back rent they owe and will have to figure out how to pay it off.

Nonprofits like hers are doubly challenged by limited funding and the difficulties they are encountering hiring staff while demand for their services grows.

“I would really wish that everybody retain their sense of aloha and know that we have to work together. But we’ll get through it,” Winter said.

Real estate sales are booming statewide. Now, homebuyers fleeing high prices are heading down the island chain. Hawaiʻi Island housing inventory is being squeezed up and down the market. As HPR's Noe Tanigawa reports, that includes rentals to everyday people.

The State of Hawaiʻi, has created a resource page for tenants and landlords with links to financial assistance programs and mediation services. (Link) The CDC's eviction order currently applies to the state's four main counties — Hawaiʻi, Maui, Kauaʻi and Honolulu. However, the order only applies to people who have applied for rental assistance and meet certain financial benchmarks. The CDC recommends renters should fill out the CDC declaration form to see if they qualify. (Link)

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