It’s been four months since Gov. David Ige put a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent in the midst of widespread unemployment due to pandemic shutdowns. But attorneys who represent low-income communities say that landlords have been forcing people who can’t pay rent out anyway, without going to court or calling the sheriffs.
Advocates are also worried that a new rule approved by the Hawaii Public Housing Authority aimed at mandating social distancing will make it easier for people to end up on the streets.
Nonprofits say they are being overwhelmed with calls from desperate renters.
The nonprofits Lawyers for Equal Justice, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii said in a press conference Tuesday that they’ve been inundated with calls about the state’s eviction moratorium and have been frustrated with the lack of enforcement.
Dan O’Meara, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, said the nonprofit has been receiving 25 or more calls per week from people who are being harassed and threatened with eviction. Even some landlords have been calling, wanting to know how they can get around the moratorium to eject tenants.
O’Meara said his office has written demand letters to landlords who are violating the law and obtained several temporary restraining orders issued by District Court judges against landlords who shut off water and electricity to try to force tenants out. In some cases, tenants can’t afford to move.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that O’Meara said he issued the TROs.
“Generally speaking, it’s not the big landlords who are doing this,” he said, noting that many mom and pop landlords seem unaware of the eviction moratorium until contacted by an attorney.
Dina Shek, executive director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said she’s particularly concerned about the state’s lack of enforcement of the eviction moratorium.
The eviction moratorium and the quarantine rules are part of the same set of emergency orders that Gov. David Ige issued to address the pandemic. Eviction moratorium violations, like quarantine violations, are punishable by up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine.
County police departments have been quick to arrest people who violate quarantine rules and publicize those arrests. But Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department, told Civil Beat in July that HPD doesn’t keep track of violations of the eviction moratorium and she knows of no warnings, citations or arrests.
“Evictions are generally civil matters, not criminal. You may want to refer to the Landlord-Tenant Code,” she said in an email.
Shek said she has contacted HPD regarding evictions and in one case an officer took down a statement. But she said she doesn’t understand why illegal evictions aren’t taken as seriously as violations of the quarantine rules or the sit-lie ban.
Hawaii courts aren’t currently processing evictions. But landlords have other ways to force their tenants out.
For years Annel Binejal had managed to keep his four-person family afloat working full time with his $12-per-hour wage. But once the pandemic hit, the 22-year-old Waipahu resident’s hours were slashed almost in half. He couldn’t pay the $1,200 per month rent in April, giving his landlord only about $800.
His landlord said he needed the money, so Binejal said he gave his landlord his whole paycheck and relied on relatives for food. His sick parents flew back home to the Marshall Islands since he could no longer support them. Binejal was afraid he and his pregnant wife would end up on the streets.
“I was panicked and was afraid of being homeless,” Binejal said through an interpreter Tuesday. He had heard that evictions weren’t supposed to happen, but says his landlord came into his apartment and told him he needed to leave and had already found someone to take his place. By mid-June, he said the landlord took his keys before he was able to move out all of his stuff, and he also lost his security deposit.
Now they live tripled up in a two-bedroom apartment with two couples, including another pregnant couple. His wife is due next month.
He said he reached out to the Marshall Islands consul general, HPD, the state and still wasn’t able to keep his housing. Binejal is speaking out now because he doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else.
In another instance, one of Helper’s clients at Lawyers for Equal Justice was told by his landlord by text message that he needed to leave, even after he told his landlord it was illegal.
Tuesday’s press conference about evictions came just hours after the state public housing agency held an emergency meeting to enact strict social distancing requirements.
Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, said in an interview Tuesday that the agency called the emergency meeting after hearing about more than a dozen COVID-19 cases in Kuhio Park Terrace.
The public housing development isn’t managed by the Housing Authority — rather, a private developer — but Ouansafi said residents must still abide by Housing Authority rules.
The new requirements mandate mask-wearing on Housing Authority property, along with social distancing, and prohibits gatherings or visitors. After two warnings, violators may be evicted.
Ouansafi said it’s necessary to ensure the safety of the community.
“To really get to the level of evictions, it means that you’re willfully not covering, that you’re willfully trying to get someone else sick,” he said. “Our responsibility is to the 40,000 or so tenants that we serve.”
But Deja Ostrowski, an attorney from the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children of Hawaii, said the rules raise red flags.
“This move is disappointing and does little to make the public housing community safer by threatening to evict people to the streets,” she said, adding that the last-minute meeting prevented public input.
She’s worried it will lead to selective enforcement and illegal housing discrimination based on stereotypes. Pacific Islanders make up more than a quarter of coronavirus cases even though they’re only 4% of the state population, and have been disproportionately arrested for stay-at-home violations.
The Marshallese community in Hawaii has been meeting weekly for months to spread awareness and help prevent the virus from spreading in their community. But Jendrikdrink Paul, president of the Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii, said at the press conference Tuesday that they’re also very concerned about illegal evictions.
“We are now stepping up, we are going to be advocating for our people,” he said.
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