Millions in housing aid promised to Hawaii families either diverted or expected to go unspent

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Updated: Nov. 13, 2020 at 5:02 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Tens of thousands of residents in the islands are behind on rent and unsure how they’ll catch up. But a new analysis finds a key state program that set aside $100 million in federal funds for those struggling families is falling well short of what was promised.

The state set aside the money from federal COVID-19 relief aid ― and it has to be disbursed by Dec. 15. But millions from the program has been diverted and millions more are poised to go unspent.

According to the Hawaii Housing Help website, the state has only paid out $20 million from the assistance program as of Tuesday. That number led us to believe there was close to $80 million it still needed to give out. But that wasn’t what state officials said this week.

“The total amount dispersed is about $20 million leaving a balance of about $64 million,” said Denise Iseri-Matsubara, head of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation, in a briefing. HNN later confirmed $16 million of the emergency funds went to pay for administrative costs.

Those administrative costs haven’t help streamline the disbursement of aid, though.

Among those still waiting for a lifeline: Chelsea Morimoto, who is unemployed.

Morimoto is a mom, her family’s breadwinner, and now courtesy of the pandemic she’s a teacher, too.

Music class is her son’s favorite.

“Ready to play?” she asked the 5-year-old, as he sat at a keyboard piano.

It’s been eight months since Morimoto was laid off from her job in the hospitality industry. Her unemployment’s run out. With an extension still pending, the 38-year-old is trying to support her family on food giveaways and the last few dollars in her savings account.

“I’ve signed up for a lot of different things,” she said. “Whatever I could.”

[Read more: Despite huge need, state has only distributed 2% of $100M set aside for housing help]

That includes the state’s Rent Relief and Housing Assistance Program.

The program was launched by the Ige administration in early September. In a news conference, the governor announced $100 million was up for grabs. Eligible applicants could get up to $2,000 a month through the end of the year paid directly to their landlord.

Morimoto submitted her application at the end of September. So far, there’s been zero response.

“It’s just been a long waiting game," she said. “I check my emails, junk mail thinking I missed something. I try to look up numbers to call. Email them to see if could get any response.”

She’s far from alone.

After weeding out duplicate applications, the state estimates close to 15,500 people signed up for help. Seventy percent haven’t seen a dime.

Problems with the program were documented in a three-page letter to the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19. Iseri-Matsubaras, of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation, wrote that “most of the challenges involve capacity and technology."

She also acknowledged the program was understaffed and issues with computer software.

For more than a month, HNN has been asking the agency to provide an on-camera interview to explain the problems with disbursing the aid. The agency has repeatedly turned down those requests.

Delays with getting aid out the door were also attributed to the state deciding to double-check the work of non-profits reviewing the applications.

Now‚ there’s about a month to hand out what’s left of the money.

In an online state House COVID-19 task force hearing Monday, spending watchdogs cast doubt on whether it would actually happen.

“They’re going to have to increase that number basically by 100 a day in order to be able to clear all the applications by the end of the year,” said Jill Tokuda, of the Hawaii Data Collaborative.

Even if if that goal is met, Tokuda estimated $12 million would go unspent.

Rent relief applicant Eduardo Hernandez is one of the lucky ones. After more than a month of constant phone calls and emails to his local representatives his application was approved.

He described the process as overly complicated. And he had every advantage.

“I have technology. I’m able to have a strong internet connection to get through these systems,” he said. “I’m speaking up for the people maybe English isn’t their first language. Maybe they don’t have wifi at home. Maybe all they have is a cell phone and they’re trying to navigate a complicated website.”

Hernandez added that the state has been “tone deaf to understanding the depth of the problem while sort of patting themselves on the back while saying, ‘oh well we’re doing the best we can.’”

“I don’t think they’re doing the best they can.”

Meanwhile, Morimoto worries how she’s going to cover next month’s rent.

“I would love someone just to be able to talk to. Where am I in the process?” she said. “You know there’s a lot of us out here. We would just like answers really.”

The state has said that after Dec. 15, any remaining funds set aside for the housing aid program will be lumped in with Hawaii’s unemployment trust fund.

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