More than 100 times a week, renters call the state Office of Consumer Protection, often with questions about their rights in contentious tenant-landlord relationships.

The office provides the callers with information, but not advocacy.

In fact, no organization advocates for tenants in Hawaii on a large scale, even though Honolulu is one of the most expensive cities for renters in the nation at double the national average.

Nearly 46 percent of Honolulu residents are renters, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. That’s a higher percentage than Philadelphia, where there’s an active tenants’ union.

View of buildings near Piikoi Street and King Street areas featuring walk up apartments. ERIC PAPE STORY. 13 NOV 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.
Tenants in Hawaii pay the highest median rents in the country. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s not to say there aren’t organizations that provide some services to or advocacy on behalf of renters.

Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii helped nearly 1,400 clients with landlord-tenant issues in fiscal year 2015. But more than 1,000 additional people called the agency and didn’t receive legal assistance due to the organization’s limited resources.

Victor Geminiani, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said Hawaii desperately needs an organization focused on providing renters with education, legal representation and political advocacy.

Appleseed conducted a recent study in conjunction with the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law and the Legal Aid Society that reviewed 200 court cases involving landlord-tenant disputes on Oahu.

The report, which Geminiani expects to be published in early 2016, found that just 4 percent of tenants had legal representation compared to 70 percent of landlords. In nearly every case — 97 percent — possession of the property reverted to the landlord. In half of the cases, the tenant lost because he or she didn’t file a legal defense.

The study’s findings are supported in part by recent data from the state Judiciary about the 2,165 landlord-tenant cases filed so far this year statewide: In 96.6 percent of cases filed in regular claims court, at least one party was missing a lawyer. In small claims court, the figure was 99.7 percent, actually an improvement from 100 percent last year.

The Judiciary didn’t provide any data on how many people were actually evicted in those cases.

Newspaper clippings document Geminiani's career-long involvement in social causes.
Victor Geminiani is a longtime advocate for low-income people. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Geminiani thinks that over a fourth of the renters in his study could have been successful if they had lawyers. But lack of legal representation isn’t the only problem plaguing renters.

“We have lousy tenants’ rights on the books,” Geminiani said, noting the absence of rent stabilization policies and an outdated renters’ tax credit.

Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a statewide organization in California that advocates for renters’ rights, said it’s disappointing that Honolulu doesn’t have a similar organization given the high cost of housing and relatively high proportion of people who rent.

The advocacy may be especially needed in light of Hawaii’s rate of homelessness, the worst in the nation. It’s unclear how many of the state’s 7,200 homeless people were evicted from their homes, but Preston said advocacy on behalf of tenants goes hand in hand with keeping people housed and preventing homelessness.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” he said.

6,000 Calls Per Year

Paola Rodelas is a communications specialist at Unite Here Local 5, a union that represents hotel workers and other members of the service industry.

“As someone who works at Local 5, where most of our friends are renters, I constantly hear questions about what are your rights as a renter,” she said. “If there were some kind of renters advocacy organization it would be very useful.”

In the absence of one, she has turned to online resources like Reddit when she has questions, such as when a landlord demanded that she pay a $1,600 pet deposit on top of a $1,600 security deposit when she was looking for a place to rent.

People can also ask questions at the state Judiciary’s self-help centers. Over 46 percent of the questions received at the Honolulu center have been related to landlord-tenant issues.

The state Consumer Resource Center also answers questions about the landlord-tenant code through the Residential Landlord-Tenant Hotline. Both landlords and renters can call the hotline from 8 a.m. to noon weekdays.

Stephen Levins of the Office of Consumer Protection.
Stephen Levins of the Office of Consumer Protection. Office of the Governor

Stephen Levins, director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, said the hotline fields more than 6,000 calls each year from renters — more than 100 calls per week.

But he emphasizes his office merely provides information, and doesn’t advocate. Levins says that a renters’ rights organization would “certainly fill a need.”

“It’s been my experience that when an issue is presented to the Legislature that impacts the rights of landlords or tenants the landlords’ interests are usually looked into by the Board of Realtors, but I’m unaware of any tenants’ organizations that have been at the table,” he said.

The Office of Consumer Protection and the Board of Realtors were the only groups to testify on a measure last spring that would allow landlords to use security deposits for “unpaid charges, penalties, and fees that were agreed to by the landlord and tenant pursuant to the rental agreement.”

Levins initially opposed the bill, contending that its vagueness “may potentially lead to abuses of tenants’ rights.”

A narrower version of the measure ultimately passed that allows landlords to use the security deposit specifically for replacing keys and covering utility charges. No group representing tenants ever weighed in.

That’s just one of many issues in which renters may not have a voice.

State lawmakers rejected a bill that would have boosted the city’s trivial $50 renters’ tax credit and allowed people earning up to $60,000 each year to claim it.

Despite rapidly rising rents, Hawaii also doesn’t have rent control, a policy that’s commonly used in other states to prevent gentrification and stop local residents from getting priced out.

Some organizations, like PHOCUSED and Catholic Charities, advocate for renter-friendly legislation such as providing shallow subsidies. But due to rules regarding its federal funding, the Legal Aid Society has to wait until it’s invited by the Legislature before it can testify on bills.

The nonprofit’s spokesman, Sergio Alcubilla, said the agency hasn’t consistently been invited to testify at the Legislature in recent years, and didn’t offer any testimony on housing bills last session.

“It would be helpful to our clients if we are invited more to testify on issues in landlord-tenant or housing,” he wrote in an email.

Prospects For A Tenants’ Rights Group?

In California, Tenants Together is a coalition of tenants’ organization that got its start in 2008 through the fight against Proposition 98, which would have banned rent control throughout California.

Preston, the executive director, said the group has passed state laws to prevent evictions, changed policies around bedbugs, counseled more than 10,000 tenants and released research on public policies affecting renters.

Housing advocates say the lack of both money and people dedicated to the cause would make it hard to replicate Tenants Together in Hawaii.

A dearth of apartment buildings might also make it difficult to organize, said Kevin Carney, who leads the Hawaii chapter of the nonprofit housing developer EAH Housing.

“It’s hard when the tenants are spread out so far,” Carney said. Nearly 40 percent of Honolulu’s rental housing stock is made up of single-family homes and duplexes.

Chuck Wathen, who leads the affordable housing advocacy group Hawaii Housing Alliance, says the need for money is key. Geminiani from the Appleseed Center agrees that’s a major barrier, but also points to the need for strong leadership and a board that’s willing to make a long-term commitment to the cause.

Without those elements, “you’re not going to be able to start an advocacy organization that’s really going to have success,” he said.

Still, Preston says it’s possible to make a difference even on a shoestring budget, and recommends starting by establishing a tenants’ association for a particular building.

It’s worked in Hawaii before, Geminiani said, recalling that public housing tenants used to organize through a group called Island Tenants on the Rise that disbanded after disagreements among its leadership.

While the Appleseed Center does some work in this area, the attorney believes it will take a dedicated tenants’ organization, or a coalition, to achieve meaningful changes for renters in Hawaii.

“We need one to make any progress in the Legislature in the process of evictions, in the understanding of equity between the rights of landlords and tenants,” Geminiani said. “The only way you get any advancement in any area, you’ve got to advocate for it.”

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