Bill aims to prevent wave of evictions, but critics say it is insufficient

Hawaii’s legislature passed a bill that would make it easier for the state to lift its moratorium on pandemic-related evictions this summer.

Governor David Ige put in place a moratorium on evictions a year ago that prevents landlords from dismissing tenants for not paying their rent. The state moratorium is due to expire on June 8.

On Wednesday, the Legislature sent House bill 1376 to Ige, who has until July 6 to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Hawaii Representative Troy Hashimoto, the bill’s lead author, said he hoped the governor would sign the measure and the moratorium could be lifted in late July or early August.

Without the state’s moratorium, tenants in Hawaii who lost their sources of income during the pandemic could still be protected by a separate federal moratorium on evictions that was extended until the end of June. But the removal of the more expansive state moratorium should always trigger a flood of expulsions.

Thousands of tenants in Hawaii have avoided eviction from this pandemic, but the end of the moratorium could come as early as this summer. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

Hashimoto hopes the bill, which focuses on providing and encouraging mediation, will help landlords and tenants settle their debt without going to court. But he said tenants who are behind on rent should tackle this now.

“At the end of the day, we want people to know if you are in arrears on rent, you shouldn’t wait until the moratorium on evictions is over. You should think ahead now. “

The bill sets a phased schedule for evictions, allowing landlords to start by evicting tenants who owe at least four months’ rent. The measure gives tenants more time to respond to their eviction notice and gives them the right to request a free mediation session, which the landlord must attend and which includes free language interpretation services.

Deja Ostrowski, an attorney for the Children’s Forensic Partnership in Hawaii, which works with Kalihi’s families, said she was concerned the bill did not go far enough, in part because tenants were struggling to access rent relief. She believes rent relief should be used up before the moratorium is lifted and worries about the lack of funding.

the Honolulu Featured Advertiser reported that the city’s rent relief request was closed in less than four hours earlier this month after being overwhelmed by more than 8,000 requests.

Phil Garboden, a University of Hawaii professor who focuses on housing, noted that HB 1376 focuses on trying to catch people right before the worst outcome, eviction.

“Right now we have a lot of money for housing assistance and the real challenge we have is to put the money in good hands,” he said.

Hashimoto said he thinks it is too early to say if there is enough money to meet the rental assistance request, as not all applicants may be eligible.

“In theory the number should be enough, but in practice we don’t know yet,” he said of rent subsidies. “We think it’s enough, but you never know.”

He does not agree with the idea that the removal of the moratorium should wait for the distribution of housing subsidies. Hashimoto said he hopes the governor will lift the moratorium this summer because he has heard concerns from landlords about bad tenants.

“I think there are some people who rightfully don’t deserve to take advantage of the moratorium on evictions because they just don’t pay. We have to make sure that the owners can get them out, ”he said.

The statewide unemployment rate was 8.6% in March and hit 12% and 13% in Maui and Kauai respectively. Hashimoto said he hopes that by the summer, with the return of tourism, more people will return to work.

He noted that federal funding for rent relief has an income cap and not everyone will be eligible.

“The reality is that the government will not be able to help everyone,” Hashimoto said. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to solve all the economic problems.”

Advantages and disadvantages

David Chee, an attorney for homeowners in Hawaii, said he was happy the bill passed. He provided feedback on the measure with other organizations such as the Hawaii Legal Aid Society, which works with low income tenants.

“The whole picture is bad for so many people and owners have been wearing a lot for so long so it’s good to have our way back to normal,” Chee said.

But some tenant advocates are concerned that lawmakers could have done more to keep tenants housed.

Jack Slater, who runs the Honolulu Tenants Union, said he heard from many tenants fighting against landlords who try to evict them despite the moratorium.

“This moratorium is the only thing that allows these families to stay in their homes right now,” he said.

House staff are masked and gloved during the COVID-19 pandemic before the upstairs session of the house.  April 8, 2021
Advocates fear a wave of evictions could begin later this summer if Gov. David Ige signs the bill. Cory Lum / Civil beat

Slater wants the Legislature to have allocated money for rent relief instead of millions for mediation services.

“Tenants need real relief and a rental discount. Without any of those in place, an eviction is inevitable, ”he said. “We received rental aid and then it was gone in just a few hours. Spending the money on mediation instead of giving it to tenants is just ridiculous for us. “

Ostrowski from Forensic Partnership for Children in Hawaii says she is concerned about whether tenants will understand they have a right to mediation and whether they will know their rights under mediation.

Hashimoto said the bill does not include any funding for public information campaigns to ensure tenants are aware of their rights to mediation and other rights when the moratorium is lifted.

“We’re going to trust the executive department to really figure this out,” Hashimoto said, perhaps adding that funding for public education could come from federal funds for rent subsidies.

Ostrowski said she was particularly concerned about whether tenants – especially non-English speaking tenants – will be aware of their rights to mediation and what it means.

Ostrowski and Slater said they spoke with tenants whose landlords refuse to participate in government assistance programs and others who do not understand how long it takes to get help.

The legislature considered a bill that would prohibit homeowners from discriminating against people who have housing subsidies, but the measure is dead. House Bill 1376 does not include any requirement that landlords participate in good faith in mediation, just that they show up if a tenant requests it.

“If people are still trying to wait for their rent assistance to be processed and have an uncooperative landlord who just refuses to take anything into mediation, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. in addition to those cases that will be taken to court, ”Ostrowski said.

Avoiding clogging of courts is a key objective of the law. Chee, the landlord’s attorney, described it as effectively putting Hawaii’s tenants on a payment plan by allowing evictions for tenants who are furthest behind on rent first.

“If they can keep their rent arrears below thresholds, they should be able to keep their housing,” he said.

Hashimoto acknowledged that some people may have to move.

“If you don’t qualify for federal funds, maybe it’s time to really think about (if) you need to start looking for a new place,” he said.

Ostrowski worries which may not be an option for everyone.

“I think for a lot of people if they could have moved to another location they would have done so already,” she said. “Mediation is based on the idea that there is another place where people can move.”

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