Help available to renters, homeowners but protections have limits

As unemployment soars, help is available to residents struggling to pay rent, mortgage

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - If you’ve been laid off or lost hours and now you’re struggling to pay your rent or mortgage, there’s help available to you.

The state Judiciary has issued several orders essentially putting a halt to evictions for non-payment of rent through April 30. But what help is available to renters beyond that isn’t clear.

Maui resident Jessica Weatherholt said the landlord for her Pukalani home just gave her a 45-day eviction letter for failing to pay April’s rent.

The single mother had to temporarily close her waxing and lash service since it’s not considered to be an essential business.

Weatherholt said she is grateful that the property owner for her shop waived the rent for April and May.

“It’s just really traumatizing because I feel like I have my hands tied behind my back right now,” said Weatherholt. “I want to work. I want to make money. I want to pay my bills, but I’m being told to stay home. I’m applying for every social service I can to help make ends meet.”

Tenants in properties with federally-guaranteed loans or those participating in federal housing programs can’t be evicted for non-payment until the end of July.

Landlords also cannot threaten to lock renters out or turn off their utilities without a court order.

“It could be a real significant number of people struggling with this, especially depending on how long it takes to get their unemployment benefits,” said Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Housing and Consumer Unit.

Homeowners with federally-backed mortgages may be able to put off making payments for up to one year without fees or additional interest.

If you have a residential landlord/tenant problem, one option is to call the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Landlord/Tenant Information Center at 586-2634.

Center staff can provide you with information about Hawaii’s Residential Landlord/Tenant Code. The center operates from 8 a.m. to noon, Mondays thru Fridays, except on state holidays.

“The worst thing you can have happen is have a bunch of people thrown out in the streets. Under normal circumstances that’s a terrible thing," said Stephen Levins, executive director of the DCCA’s Office of Consumer Protection.

“Under the circumstances we’re dealing with now with this pandemic, we can’t just be throwing people out in the streets.”

FAQ FOR RENTERS

Do I still have to pay rent?

Yes, you’re still legally obligated to pay rent.

But what I can’t afford rent?

Inform the landlord that you can’t cover rent and explain why. Renters should try to work with landlords to see if they can agree on delayed or partial payment options.

Can a landlord evict me if I can’t pay rent?

The state Judiciary has essentially put a halt to evictions for non-payment of rent through April 30.

What if I was facing eviction proceedings before the orders were issued?

In that case, those proceedings are still valid. However, the state Sheriffs Division has said they have put a halt to all of their efforts on evictions.

Can a landlord raise my rent?

No, at least for now, your rent can’t be raised.

What if my rental is subject to a federal housing program?

In this case, property owners are prohibited for filing for eviction or charging any fees for unpaid rent through July 26.

Properties that fall in this category are all those with federally-guaranteed loans or participating in federal housing programs (such as Section 8).

About 60% of loans in the US are federally-guaranteed.

For more questions and answers on the landlord-tenant code in Hawaii, click here.

FAQ FOR HOMEOWNERS

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s office has put together a list of online resources that includes help for homeowners who are unable to pay their mortgages. Click here to access that guide.

Assistance includes a delay in payments for homeowners with a federally-backed mortgage.

“Lots of Hawaii residents are struggling to make their mortgage or their rent, and these programs can help tens of thousands of people who need it,” said Schatz.

“Please call either your mortgage servicer, your landlord, or a housing counselor to see if you are eligible for either forbearance or protections against being evicted.”

Schatz adds that more than 60% of all mortgages in Hawaii are backed by the federal government.

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