Extra help urged for Hawaii renters who face eviction due to COVID-19 pandemic

When Hawaii’s United Way agencies held a $1.25 million housing assistance program for renters in late March and early April, the effort reached its maximum number of referrals in just three weeks.

A similar program underwritten by federal COVID-19 relief funds and administered by Aloha United Way on Oahu last month also drew a huge surge in interest.

“The number of applicants just poured in,” said Lisa Kimura, UAW vice president of community impact.

As bad as it is for renters now, it’s likely to get worse in the coming months and especially after the $600 federal boost to unemployment benefits expires at the end of July. The situation is prompting some to predict an avalanche of rental evictions.

That’s why more than 50 of Hawaii’s nonprofits and social service agencies, and as many individuals, are urging state leaders to enact widespread protections for renters, including extending the prohibition on evictions for months after the pandemic is over in an effort to avoid mass evictions across the islands.

“Many people were in trouble even before the pandemic hit,” said Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “The likelihood the problem is going to increase is significant.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that close to 20% of Hawaii’s households have either been unable to pay their housing payment or have “slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time.”

And, according to an analysis by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center, between 40,000 and 45,000 renter households will be unemployed by July 31, will lose their $600 federal bump and will not be receiving other rental assistance.

Some 21,500 of these renter households will be at risk of losing their housing because the portion of their income earmarked for housing will rise by 10% or more, the analysis said, while 7,500 of these renter households will be at extreme risk of losing their housing because the portion of their income going to housing will jump by 30% or more.

The coalition of nonprofits and agencies, among them the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, is urging the state Legislature to address the impending rental crisis when lawmakers convene starting Monday.

In a letter to Gov. David Ige, Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Rodney Maile, administrative director of the courts, the coalition is urging the adoption of at least five policies to prevent mass evictions of renters due to the economic crisis created by the pandemic.

In his latest COVID-19 emergency proclamation, Ige extended a moratorium on evictions to the end of July, an action that offers relief for tenants fearing eviction due to unpaid rent.

But it’s not enough, according to coalition leaders. Lawmakers must plan for a legion of tenants and families racking up housing debt during the pandemic and who will be unlikely to pay off the debt for months even after the economy fully reopens and they are able to work again, the letter said.

“It’s a pretty dire situation for renters,” said Wayne Tanaka, interim public policy manager at OHA.

Tanaka said a greater percentage of Native Hawaiians are renters and are more likely to be impacted by the problem.

Kahiau, OHA’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program administered by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, is reporting a 250% increase in inquiries to the program since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Tanaka said he’s hearing reports that a lot of people don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, and some are receiving eviction notices even though that’s not permitted under the current moratorium.

Robert Manning is one of them. The Wahiawa resident, a cook, and his wife, a bus driver, lost all of their income after the coronavirus pandemic struck, leaving them unable to pay their $1,200 monthly rent.

Manning received an eviction notice, but he was able to hold off his landlord after obtaining enough funds from an emergency housing assistance program funded by OHA.

“But I’m still two months back on my rent,” he said. “I worry every day about how I’m going to pay.”

In its letter, the coalition recommends five policies that would largely minimize the threat of mass evictions “and resulting mass houselessness that would otherwise persist well after the end of the pandemic’s threat to our public health.” The five policies are:

>> An extended eviction moratorium that would continue as the economy recovers, allowing tenants to generate the income necessary to pay off any housing-related debt linked to the pandemic.

>> A landlord subsidy program, using state or federal (CARES Act) funds, to cover up to 20% of monthly rent for tenants affected by the pandemic that would be available to landlords who agree to reduce rent by 20% and refrain from evictions for six months after the expiration of any eviction moratorium. For example, for a base rent of $1,000, the tenant would cover $600, the subsidy would cover $200, and the landlord’s rent reduction would cover $200.

>> A tax credit or deduction for landlords based on reductions in rent provided to their tenants.

>> A mandatory mediation process to encourage landlords and tenants to come to a mutually agreeable resolution of landlord-tenant disputes.

>> An expungement of eviction records if the eviction action was based in part on back rent or late fees accrued during the pandemic.

According to an analysis by UHERO, as much as $117 million in rental assistance will be needed to help renters over the next six months.

A subcommittee of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness is already proposing a Housing Relief and Resilience Fund underwritten by federal funds to assist lower-income renters who lost income because of the pandemic.

According to the plan, tenants who apply for help would agree to pay the same portion of their incomes for rent as they did before the pandemic. They also would agree to receive financial counseling and would receive mediation or legal support to take care of any delinquent rent issues.

The plan also calls for negotiation with landlords to persuade them to discount rents over the next six months. The housing relief fund would then make up the difference between what the tenants would be required to pay and the discounted rent agreed to by landlords.

Elsewhere, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, which administers about 6,200 federal and state low-income public housing units on five islands, announced Friday that it has waived minimum rents and late fees linked to pandemic-related income loss.