‘Tsunami’ of evictions feared when Hawaii’s moratorium is lifted next month

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Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 1:27 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 15, 2021 at 10:00 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii’s eviction moratorium will be lifted Aug. 6, and renters who owe back payments are being urged to work out a plan or seek out additional resources.

“The eviction moratorium has been in place since April of last year,” Gov. David Ige said, at a news conference Thursday. “The pandemic is not over, but thanks to safe and effective vaccines many more people are back at work. We do know that we need to get back to normal.”

The moratorium prevents landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent.

It was aimed at preventing mass evictions during the height of the pandemic, when hundreds of thousands in Hawaii were out of work. Lifting the moratorium is seen as part of a broader transition away from statewide emergency proclamations related to the pandemic.

But government officials and service providers agreed there is widespread concern about the prospect of a significant increase in evictions when the moratorium is lifted.

“We are afraid of the onslaught in the courts with eviction proceedings and also in most importantly people out on the streets,” said state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, a member of the Housing Committee.

Tracey Wiltgen, executive director of the Mediation Center of the Pacific, said there are an estimated 10,000 tenants behind in their rent in the islands.

Most owe one to two months of back rent.

She said the Mediation Center is preparing to serve hundreds to thousands of landlords and tenants.

Ige urged both landlords and renters to do their homework on new and significant changes to the state’s landlord-tenant code, including a law that creates a free mediation process.

He acknowledged that the state doesn’t have “perfect information” about how many tenants are behind in rent.

“I think all of us are very much concerned about what the impact will be when the moratorium is lifted. We don’t know what the true numbers are,” Ige said.

“Until we end the moratorium, there really is no way for us to find out. Hopefully, we can mitigate mass evictions.”

Under the new law that sets up a free mediation process, a tenant must be at least four months behind in rent to qualify for a 30-day pause from the notice of eviction to the mediation process. It’s hoped this will keep people out of the courts and inspire compromise between landlords and tenants.

“We want to create a situation in which those tenants who all money to the landlord can go to a neutral body to see if it can be worked out,” said Stephen Levins of the Office of Consumer Protection.

“As a tenant, you can get an extra 15 days if you do cooperate and schedule a mediation. So if you get a notice in early August, you could still be in the process, comfortably, in September,” said Dan O’Meara, the managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s housing and consumer unit.

Nonprofits like HOPE Services Hawaii are worried about the prospect of mass evictions.

“We hear the phrase tsunami of evictions coming and it’s not an exaggeration,” said Kristen Alice, Hope Services Hawaii director of community relations.

“It’s reprehensible that people will be pushed out on the street. It’s going to cause untold distress on the people who are being forced out,” she added.

Niki Bailey lives in an affordable unit in Hilo and worries she could be forced out.

“Pretty blindsided. We were pretty flabbergasted. We had no idea that it was going to sneak up on us like that,” said Bailey.

Developer Peter Savio said he’s not expecting a flood of people on the streets all at once.

“I think it’s going to take months,” he said. “I think some tenants will just move rather than put with the fight and the additional cost of the battle. Others will stay and wait ‘til the bitter end.”

Tenants who can get the extra time are being told to use it wisely.

“If they haven’t applied for rental assistance, it’s time to apply for rental assistance. It’s time to talk to their landlord. It’s time to figure out what to do next if they can’t get rental assistance,” said O’Meara.

The city’s Office of Economic Revitalization said that it’s rental assistance program has helped 5,200 Oahu households with $42 million in rent and utility support since the first found of assistance in April. However, the program has been paused while new applications are being processed.

The office expects another $180 million in federal funding for more rent and utility assistance through the end of 2022.

Savio said most of his tenants have been sincere and have tried to pay as much as they can. He’s worked out payment plans with them, but there are still some renters that he’ll be getting rid of.

“We have one tenant that we know that just refused to pay, and their rent was 3, 4 thousand dollars a month,” he said. “They managed to buy two new cars during the process, so we don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. So they will be evicted.”

For more information on mediation and rental assistance, click here.

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