When a Filipina woman stepped up to the microphone Tuesday near the end of a half-day conference on housing the homeless, her story sounded like every landlord’s worst nightmare.
She said her name was Victoria — she didn’t give her last name — and said she decided to take a chance on a family with a Section 8 voucher because she believed in helping people. She didn’t even conduct a credit check because even if the family had messed up before, she wanted to give them a second chance.
Three years later, the tenants trashed her property and she was forced to spend $5,000 on a lawyer to handle the eviction.
“I asked Section 8 for help,” she said. “No one helped me.”
She asked the panelists what she should have done, but their replies suggested hiring a lawyer was her only option.
The exchange illustrated the challenge of convincing landlords to accept low-income renters in Hawaii’s hot rental market. The state has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, and Honolulu officials are looking to the private sector to help house the 5,000 or so homeless people living on Oahu.
Tuesday’s conference, sponsored by the city, state, Partners in Care and Hawaii Association of Realtors, sought to help landlords learn about how they can help alleviate homelessness. More than 350 people registered to attend and about a dozen vendors handed out fliers and information sheets.
But while the event may have helped educate landlords on what programs are available and how they work, the conference also underscored the need to continue to connect landlords with support services and address their concerns about renting to low-income people.
Forty percent of Honolulu’s rental housing stock is made up of single-family homes and duplexes, and many landlords are homeowners, not professional property managers. Each year, the state Office of Consumer Protection receives 4,000 calls from landlords with questions about their rights, and one conference attendee was probably speaking for many when he said he feels the Landlord-Tenant Code favors renters, not landlords like him.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell attended the conference and urged landlords to pitch in to help end homelessness, particularly for veterans, but said he agreed that the Landlord-Tenant Code is slanted toward tenants.
“While we want to protect the tenants’ rights, we also want to make landlords feel comfortable to step up,” he said, provoking a round of applause.
He expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of help available for Victoria and other landlords like her.
“We need to do a better job,” he said.
Part of the challenge of convincing landlords to accept vouchers is that there are several housing subsidy programs with different rules and varying degrees of support for landlords and tenants.
For example, the federal government’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program awards homeless veterans vouchers and and provides round-the-clock support services for landlords and some compensation for damages through a partnership with Hawaii Pathways Project, administered by Helping Hands Hawaii and Catholic Charities.
Several other local programs also partner with the Pathways Project to provide 24-hour on-call support, including the Steadfast Housing Development Corp.’s program serving chronically homeless people.
But the best-known rental subsidy — the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8 — doesn’t have such help for landlords, nor any assistance for renters who are looking for a place to live.
City spokesman Jay Parasco said the city has been actively recruiting a landlord specialist for its Section 8 program, but even if that position is filled, that employee would only be able to provide limited support services to the landlords receiving the city’s 3,700 Section 8 vouchers.
Jan Harada, executive director of Helping Hands Hawaii, recommended that landlords call Aloha United Way at 211 to learn more about the various agencies available to help with problematic tenants.
Conference attendees voiced concerns about bad tenants and asked questions about who are Hawaii’s homeless and whether most of them are from the mainland.
Greg Payton, chief executive officer of Mental Health Kokua and chair of Partners in Care, said the two most common misconceptions he hears are that “everybody’s from the mainland and they all want to live that way.”
“I was at a homeless conference in the mainland and there were people from Cleveland saying, ‘Everybody is sending their homeless to Cleveland!’” he said with a laugh.
After the conference, Payton said nearly all of the mentally ill homeless people have families in Hawaii who haven’t been able to take care of them, and most of the homeless families are local.
According to data from homeless shelters reported by the Associated Press, 30 percent of homeless people are Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian; 27 percent are non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders; and 26 percent are white.
“Every single meeting we go to they say, ‘they’re all from somewhere else,’” Payton said. “And it is the easy answer, just send them back where they came from. But the fact is, almost 90 percent are from here, so that’s not the easy answer.”
Data from the nonprofit PHOCUSED organization also shows that a fourth of Hawaii’s homeless population are on the streets simply because they can’t afford rent, rather than due to mental health or substance abuse problems.
Perhaps no one dispels negative stereotypes about homeless people better than Hirotoshi and Kimberly Picaro.
The couple from Oahu became homeless during the economic downturn when their effort to start a business in 2008 failed and they ended up getting evicted.
They were homeless for four years, squatting in empty properties in Ward. For two of those four years, Kimberly battled breast cancer. They eventually found housing with the help of a Section 8 voucher.
The Picaros stood up at the summit to tell their story and urge landlords to take a chance on people like them.
“We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all gone the wrong way, but you folks can make a difference,” he said.
Read “The Harbor,” Civil Beat’s special report about a unique homeless camp in Waianae and the people who live there.