Hawaii could experience a surge in evictions and homelessness in the coming months as a third of the state’s labor force files for unemployment and people who were living paycheck to paycheck are suddenly unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
While there are some federal and state protections in place to cushion the blow, many residents and advocates say it’s just not enough.
They say Gov. David Ige needs to act now to head off a housing crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“If nothing is done, I think we’re looking at a potential tsunami of evictions and homelessness,” said Tom Helper, director of litigation at Lawyers for Equal Justice.
Certain landlords are eligible for up to one year of loan forbearance and are prohibited from filing to evict tenants for not paying rent until July 26, according to the U.S. CARES Act. They include landlords with federally backed mortgages and those who deal with federal funds, like public housing and Section 8.
But landlords whose mortgages are not federally backed – about 40% of Hawaii mortgages, according to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz – and those who own their properties outright can still file for eviction for nonpayment of rent.
In Hawaii, that group of landlords is unable to actually evict anyone right now because Hawaii courts are closed until April 30. But the stay on evictions doesn’t mean tenants are off the hook for their rent.
On May 1, Hawaii is likely to see a flurry of eviction notices that could have profound impacts on people and businesses booted from their leased homes, said Dan O’Meara, managing attorney of the housing and consumer unit at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.
“We’ve got to figure out something so we don’t have a bunch of homeless people come May,” he said. “The shelters will get hit. People’s friends and relatives will get hit. It’ll just be a flood of people looking for housing. And who wants that during a pandemic when you’re supposed to stay away from each other? It’s just a potential for more coronavirus in the community.”
A spike in Hawaii’s homelessness would pile on to what is already the second-worst rate of homelessness in the nation – a problem that the state has failed to improve significantly despite the long stretch of economic prosperity that preceded the coronavirus outbreak.
Although Ige had pledged to end homelessness by 2020, Oahu alone still had more than 4,400 homeless people in 2019, and the unsheltered population has been trending upward. Should those numbers increase further, providing homeless services will only become more difficult as state revenue dwindles.
In hopes of preventing that, individuals, community groups and elected officials are advocating for greater protections.
Lawyers for Equal Justice and Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice are calling for a moratorium on evictions for 60 days or more.
Honolulu City Council President Ikaika Anderson and Councilman Ron Menor wrote a letter to Ige on March 31 asking for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for up to six months. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants a halt to evictions for the entirety of the health emergency plus six months beyond.
The recently formed Honolulu Tenants Union is calling for a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments – not to delay them but to eliminate them entirely for the length of the health crisis.
“Everyone needs a break right now,” said Jack Slater, an organizing committee member for the union. “They need to build up their savings because we don’t know how long this could actually go on for.”
Ige has said little about his plans to address housing during the pandemic, and some of what he has said is inaccurate.
On March 23, the governor incorrectly claimed during a press conference that his emergency proclamation suspends the parts of the landlord-tenant code and banking code that have to do with foreclosures and evictions. There is no such language in his proclamations, and his office didn’t respond to questions about it the following day.
Three days later, Ige was asked about this again at a Hawaii News Now town hall, and he repeated the false claim.
The governor’s statements confused Jocelyn Doane, a public policy manager for OHA, because she couldn’t find the supposed language anywhere. She said she read the proclamations repeatedly and thought she must be missing something.
“I had a couple of my smarter friends read through them and confirm for me that: No, it’s not in there, you’re not crazy,” she said.
When pressed on this by Civil Beat, Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said on March 30 that the governor is “working on it and nothing has happened yet.”
Asked about evictions during a press conference this week, Ige gave no indication of what he intends to do.
“Certainly we are looking at all actions that we need to help our community,” he said. “We continue to monitor the situation and certainly would be looking at what further action is required as we approach April 30 to see what programs need to be extended to support our community.”
Meanwhile, leaders across the country are implementing eviction and foreclosure moratoriums.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on March 27 prohibiting evictions of those who cannot pay because of COVID-19 impacts.
In New York, where there is a moratorium through mid-June, lawmakers are considering pushing it until six months after a state of emergency is lifted. Vermont legislators just voted remotely to stop evictions and foreclosures until 30 days after the state of emergency ends.
In all three states, tenants are still responsible for paying the full rent they owe when the moratoriums lift.
Tenants like Shannon Jones are on edge.
The Kailua resident had stable work as a bartender in Chinatown until Mayor Kirk Caldwell shut down all bars and restaurants last month. Suddenly unemployed, Jones said it’s going to be tough to come up with his half of the rent in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend.
“My income was cut to zero in a 24-hour period,” he said.
Jones approached his landlord about a rent reduction and was told to knock off 10% that could be paid back over the summer, he said.
“Ten percent is not going to help us out at all,” he said. “I’m weighing my options.”
Jones said he hasn’t filed for unemployment yet. If and when he does, he’ll join a wave of unemployed workers who are facing busy signals. The state labor department is aiming to deliver benefits to claimants within 21 days – an eternity if you don’t have the money to pay your rent.
When it comes to the potential for eviction, Jones said he is somewhat worried. However, he hopes his good record as a tenant will be enough to sustain him through a rough patch when the alternative for the landlord might be an empty unit.
“Are you going to be able to find someone who is going to pay a deposit, sign a lease and move in during these times?” he said.
Sasha Myers is feeling the squeeze, too.
The Pearl City mom is working fewer hours at her state job because she can’t afford the child care needed for four kids in the house who are no longer going to school. She’s also in pain from a tumor on her neck. It was supposed to be surgically removed before many non-emergency procedures were canceled when the pandemic hit. Her fiance, who works in construction, is also working fewer hours than usual.
Food costs are higher now since the kids aren’t eating at school, she said, and the bills don’t stop. Car and insurance payments are automatically deducted from her bank account. Her 11-year-old son is starting to act out from being cooped up.
“I’m so overwhelmed and stressed out with everything that sometimes I can’t even think straight,” she said.
It was a huge relief when her landlord reached out and offered to reduce the rent from $1,900 to $1,200 per month, she said.
“We were blessed with an amazing landlord,” she said. “I know I’ve got it rough, but I can only imagine people who have it rougher than I do.”
The financial impacts of COVID-19 are expected to hit Native Hawaiians especially hard.
With a low homeownership rate, many Native Hawaiians are renters who are vulnerable to eviction, according to OHA.
Native Hawaiians have fewer financial resources to weather financial emergencies due to their income, which is lower per capita than the general population, according to OHA. A greater percentage of Native Hawaiians live in poverty compared to the general public, and about a quarter of them work in service occupations that have been devastated in recent weeks.
“I am worried,” said OHA’s Jocelyn Doane. “The best practice is to do something proactive which I don’t think we’re doing enough of.”
In general, landlords don’t want to evict tenants, according to David Chee, an attorney who represents landlords. They want to keep an uninterrupted flow of income, but if that flow stops abruptly, landlords may file for eviction.
“The time to talk to your landlord about whatever problems you have paying your rent is now,” he said.
It’s in the best interest of both landlords and tenants to work together, Chee said. If the landlord can secure even partial rent, the renter can avoid an eviction on their record that would make securing future housing more difficult.
Section 8 tenants, in particular, should communicate with their landlords and program representatives because getting evicted means losing their housing voucher, Chee said. Ironically, demand for Section 8 tenants may increase in this crisis because, unlike other renters, they provide landlords with a guaranteed monthly rent check from the government.
Kim Coco Iwamoto, a former Hawaii Board of Education member who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018, owns a small apartment building in Honolulu. She said tenants are in a strong position to negotiate their rent down, and landlords should be receptive to those conversations. It’s better than having an empty unit, she said.
“This is not the time to get a new dance partner,” she said. “You might as well stay with the person you know and trust.”
Some renters will just skip paying rent altogether, said O’Meara, the Legal Aid attorney. If his own daughter was laid off and protected by a moratorium, that’s what he would advise her to do, he said.
“I would tell her: Don’t work out any payment arrangement if you don’t think you’ll be able to pay it five months from now. Save that money for your exit strategy,” he said. “It’s kind of cruel, and it’s tough on the landlord, but chances are the landlord will do something similar and plan their strategy too, to get you out.”
When an eviction moratorium eventually lifts, the tenant will owe months of back rent they just don’t have, O’Meara said. That will be true whether they paid part or all of their rent along the way. At that point, the landlord could evict the person and obtain a court judgment against them, O’Meara said, but it’s not worth a landlord’s effort and cost in legal fees when they know the person simply doesn’t have the money.
“Some landlords are just going to have to eat it,” he said.
From his experience working with the indigent population, O’Meara said most people do want to pay their bills and will work with landlords.
“Nobody feels good about just not paying,” he said. “Most people really do want to try to work it out.”
Landlords and tenants are in a symbiotic relationship, Chee said. If tenants don’t pay, he said the ripple effects could mean landlords run into trouble with their lenders. That could mean foreclosures, although the foreclosure process moves slowly, he said.
“I think of it like a human body,” he said. “The tenants are the heart that keeps everything going because they’re pumping the blood into the system. If they stop pumping blood, the system might be able to survive for a little bit, but not very long.”
Landlords also have expenses to pay, including building upkeep and repairs. If tenants suddenly stop paying, property owners might start letting properties go.
“I expect the housing stock in Honolulu takes a dive in terms of quality and in terms of livability because I don’t know how a landlord can continue to provide a habitable place if they don’t have the money to do it,” he said.
Some landlords may even stop paying utility bills, Chee said – although doing so would be illegal, according to LASH.
It makes sense that the state would halt evictions during a time of crisis, Chee said, but if they’re going to do that, landlords need assistance too.
“The only real enforcement that landlords have to get tenants to pay is eviction,” he said. “Once you’ve taken that away, what are you doing to help the landlords who still have the obligation to provide housing?”
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