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Honolulu residents pay some of the highest rents in the nation. But there still isn’t an organization dedicated to advocating for tenants. And when it comes to actual eviction cases, they lose nearly every time.
Tenants are only represented 5 percent of the time in eviction cases compared to 70 percent for landlords, according to a recent study by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income people.
Ninety-five percent of cases end in eviction, and half end in a default judgment for the landlord.
The analysis reflects a broader lack of advocacy for renters in Honolulu. While other states have groups solely dedicated to renters — such as the Philadelphia Tenants Union, California’s Tenants Together and Arizona Tenants Advocates — there’s nothing similar in Hawaii.
The state Office of Consumer Protection runs an informational landlord-tenant hotline and receives about 8,000 to 10,000 calls per year.
Executive Director Stephen Levins often testifies on behalf of renters at the Legislature and says he’s sometimes the only one. Organizations like the Appleseed Center and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii may testify, but there’s no one group consistently representing renters.
“For whatever reason Hawaii does not seem to have organizations that are heavily involved at the Legislature in lobbying for tenants’ rights or for consumer protection outside the Office of Consumer Protection,” Levins said.
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii defends many tenants in court, especially those who are facing discrimination or rely on public subsidies. But the organization is not allowed to lobby and can only testify if it is invited to the Legislature, says managing attorney Dan O’Meara.
“There’s no tenants out there telling the Legislature, ‘Hey, these are the things that are important to us,’” O’Meara said.
Jerry Jones is policy director at the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit advocating for low-income people. He says that the lack of legal representation and advocacy for tenants in Honolulu is in line with a national decline in tenant advocacy and funding for renters’ groups.
Making sure that “people can keep their housing is not a well-funded priority either for philanthropy or for government,” Jones said.
That gap has significant consequences.
“Without housing one’s whole life quickly unravels,” Jones said. “It’s like this very critical essential human need.”
But while Legal Aid has limited resources — just one attorney is dedicated to landlord-tenant issues on Oahu — O’Meara says that there’s not much Legal Aid can do for tenants who don’t pay their rent. Even if a landlord didn’t notify the tenant correctly, that may only delay eviction, O’Meara says.
The organization turns down many cases where the tenant lacks a valid defense.
“It’s not necessarily a resource issue, it’s affordability of housing and their personal financial situation,” O’Meara says of evictions. “There’s always going to be people who get evicted because they can’t afford it.”
David Chee, an attorney who represents landlords, says eviction is a last resort.
“Landlords do not file eviction actions lightly, they only do it when there is a legitimate problem,” he said, adding, “It isn’t a lack of advocacy, it is a lack of money that creates evictions.”
One solution may be to fund more subsidy programs that help tenants stay housed if they can’t come up with rent for a month or two.
Jay King, public policy coordinator at Aloha United Way, says that the organization’s 18-month eviction prevention program — which gave an average of $2,300 per family to help them stay housed — was successful.
“Only 3 percent that received eviction prevention assistance ended up homeless,” King said.
The program involved more than 1,000 households statewide and more than 700 on Oahu. The average household size facing eviction was a family of four. Three-fourths included families with children and a third of those had single parents.
“You can significantly impact or reduce the chances of eviction by connecting (households) with community resources and case management support,” King said. “There’s an absolutely higher probability of them sustaining housing than if we don’t.”
Victor Geminiani, co-executive director of the Appleseed Center, says blaming a lack of money “is a deflection of responsibility to do something about the problem.”
“If a client walked in their door and said, ‘I’ll pay your $250 an hour, I need to find a way to stay in this house, an answer would be found,'” Geminiani said. When it comes to low-income renters, “just because they don’t have the money doesn’t mean they don’t have defenses or counterclaims to that eviction.”
Jones from the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles says landlords may not be maintaining their units or may be discriminating against renters, but without advocates, those problems get overlooked.
“When one side has a lawyer and the other side doesn’t, that sort of fair play of making sure the landlord is holding up his end of the bargain doesn’t get discussed in court,” Jones said.
The Appleseed Center’s study offered a range of potential solutions such as allowing law students and paralegals to defend renters; giving renters more time to come up with rent; improving how tenants are notified about hearings; and allowing tenants to withhold rent if their unit is in bad condition. Some states, like Connecticut, already give renters more time to catch up on rent.
Geminiani says the Appleseed Center and a coalition of like-minded organizations plan to advocate at the Legislature this year for many of the report’s recommendations. But he knows it may take years to actually succeed in legislative changes and he’s not sure whether the Appleseed Center has the bandwidth to take the lead on this issue over the long term.
In fact, he’s not sure whether any existing organizations in Hawaii has that capacity. Ideally, there would be funding available to support a group dedicated to renters’ rights.
“You need a group of individuals and you need a staff person that will know what’s happening across the country, that will maintain relationships,” he said, estimating that such an office would cost $75,000 to $100,000 per year.
Until then, it’s an uphill battle.
“There’s just a lack of knowledge and lack of commitment to do anything on behalf of tenants throughout the system,” Geminiani said.
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