Ever since attorney and landlord David Chee watched Gov. David Ige announce Hawaii’s eviction moratorium on April 17, Chee has been telling his clients that they could go to jail if they force their non-paying tenants to leave.

“This proclamation will immediately place a moratorium on eviction by preventing any eviction from a residential dwelling for a failure to pay rent,” Ige said in a press conference. “Any violation of this mandate is now a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and or a year in jail.”

Except that’s not what the moratorium actually does, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office told Civil Beat. The punishment is a civil fine, not a misdemeanor, which explains why the Honolulu Police Department hasn’t been enforcing the moratorium despite the city’s unprecedented policing of the pandemic stay-at-home order.

Enforcement of the eviction moratorium is instead being handled by the Office of Consumer Protection, which has launched fewer than 10 investigations thus far into misbehaving landlords and hasn’t fined or taken anyone to court yet.

Masked Governor David Ige walks into press conference discussing veto some measures during COVID-19 pandemic. August 31, 2020
Gov. David Ige said eviction moratorium violators may face jail time but now his own Attorney General’s Office is contradicting that. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The lack of criminal penalties is good news to Chee, who represents landlords who collectively own about 15,000 units. Even with the moratorium in place and the fear of going to jail, Chee has been advising his clients that they can still legally ask their tenants to move out.

“The moratorium doesn’t say that nobody should get pressure from their landlord to move. It just doesn’t say that,” Chee said. “If people can be talked into moving, incentivized to move, then I don’t really see a problem with it.”

Not everyone agrees with Chee. The head of the Office of Consumer Protection, Stephen Levins, said in a situation in which a tenant is “not paying the rent and the landlord says, ‘If you don’t pay the rent, I’m going to get you out,’ that in my view would be a violation of all applicable laws.”

Tom Helper, an attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said the eviction moratorium clearly protects tenants who can’t make rent, adding that violations could cost landlords thousands of dollars. A new federal moratorium also bans evictions through the end of 2020. Helper filed a lawsuit last week against a landlord who texted their tenant to leave.

“Telling someone, ‘You have to leave because you can’t pay rent,’ is clearly a violation of the law,” he said.

But tenants’ advocates say that’s exactly what’s happening. Despite Ige’s strong rhetoric about keeping people housed, his moratorium is not stopping landlords from pressuring renters into leaving. Landlords are texting tenants to leave, knocking on their doors and popping their heads in to ask for money or otherwise telling renters to get out, according to advocates and renters.

Resources for Renters And Landlords

Many tenants are complying. Some are moving back in with families, or to the mainland. They’re crowding into units, increasing their risk of getting COVID-19, to avoid the stress of persistent demands and being saddled with months of rent bills they can’t pay.

A spokesperson for Ige initially told Civil Beat that violating the eviction moratorium was a misdemeanor before referring all questions about the moratorium — including a question about the governor’s intentions, and why he said violators would face jail time if that’s not true — to the AG’s office. A spokesperson for the AG said he couldn’t answer those questions and referred Civil Beat back to Ige.

Jack Slater, one of the organizing members of the Honolulu Tenants Union, said many renters are fearful that once the month-to-month moratorium lifts they’ll get hit with an eviction in court, leaving a black mark on their records, and are simply caving in to pressure to go.

Slater thinks Hawaii’s eviction moratorium should be strengthened but he’s skeptical it will happen without political pressure from tenants.

“They’ve had months and months to fix this,” he said of the Ige administration. “All they’ve done is make it clear that they don’t care about us and that’s why we’ve got to organize.”

Dina Shek, an attorney at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, wants the state to rewrite the moratorium so that it actually does what the governor said it would do.

“If the intent truly is to prevent evictions due to nonpayment of rent, then let’s make that truly clear,” she said, adding that there’s a need for more enforcement and resources for both landlords and renters.

What The Eviction Moratorium Does

Unlike tenants’ advocates, Chee says Hawaii’s eviction moratorium has been effective in keeping people housed. Because while landlords may ask tenants who can’t pay rent to leave, the renters don’t have to go.

The moratorium suspends all the legal avenues that landlords could typically use to force someone to leave. Instead of filing dozens of eviction cases monthly, Chee is now filing less than a handful of cases each month against people who don’t move out after their leases are up or otherwise violate their rental agreements.

Chee says Ige’s eviction moratorium has essentially forced both large companies and mom-and-pop landlords to carry the costs of housing thousands. While Chee mostly represents large landlords, a national study found smaller landlords have been particularly hit hard by the financial cost of eviction moratoriums.

“He has basically turned private housing into public housing,” Chee said of the governor.

While landlords can suspend payments on federally backed mortgages, many are continuing to pay for maintenance and utilities, Chee said. When the moratorium expires, he said they expect their non-paying tenants to move out.

Slater, from the Honolulu Tenants Union, anticipates that will happen too.

“We should have a rent forgiveness situation. No one is going to get a job on Oct. 1 that pays for one, two, three, four, five, six months of back rent,” he said. “I don’t know what the governor expects out of people.”

State officials have given conflicting answers about what violating the eviction moratorium entails. Krishna Jayaram, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the confusion about the penalties was attributable to “ambiguities” in the initial eviction moratorium proclamation. He said tenants who get their utilities shut off or locks changed should call the Office of Consumer Protection.

Levins said the agency is happy to bring cases against landlords who violate the law but that it hasn’t gotten enough information from tenants to do so. He said calls to his office have increased up to 20% over last year but many tenants who call don’t leave enough information to actually allow the office to launch investigations.

“We can’t just get anonymous complaints because that doesn’t help us,” he said.

Slater said the landlord-tenant hotline is helpful but it’s not enough, noting that it’s open only four hours a day on non-holiday weekdays.

“If you’re working a night shift you’re asleep at that time,” he said.

In comparison, the city’s quarantine violation hotline is open 24 hours per day.

Need For Clarity

While the state has launched public information campaigns about mask-wearing and social-distancing in multiple languages on social media, that hasn’t happened for the eviction moratorium. Attorneys for tenants say the biggest violators are mom-and-pop landlords who aren’t aware of the law.

“There’s just so much stress on everyone that the government should be absolutely clear on what the legal obligations and provisions are,” said Helper from the Appleseed Center. The vagueness is prompting legal organizations to craft their own individual guidelines about what the moratorium does.

Meanwhile, tensions between some landlords and tenants are mounting.

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

Darlene Ewan, an advocate for the deaf community in Hawaii, of which she herself is a member, said she knows of two families in the deaf community who got kicked out by their landlords during the pandemic. She wishes landlords could better communicate with tenants and that the state would better regulate evictions.

“If landlords could evict them, then the moratorium doesn’t really protect the renters,” Ewan said.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said the governor will consider whether the moratorium needs to change based on new information or changing circumstances.

Chee said he still thinks that violating the eviction moratorium could be punishable with jail time, based on his reading of the law. But he said he’s confused, even though interpreting landlord-tenant law is his full-time job.

“I do this all the time, I can’t even figure out what the penalties are,” he said.

He wants the state to clarify the meaning of the moratorium and the penalties.

“The reason that people are breaking the law is that people don’t understand the law,” he said.

Getting Subsidies Isn’t So Easy

One potential solution to the problem is rental subsidies. The Ige administration recently rolled out a multimillion dollar rental subsidy program funded with federal CARES Act money. Chee called the program “fantastic.”

“I’ve been telling my clients that it’s characterized as rent relief for tenants but it’s really rent relief for landlords because the tenant gets the credit and the landlord gets the money,” he said.

But not every landlord seems aware of the program or willing to participate in it. Waipahu resident Lorina Anjerok said after calling 211 and learning about the requirements to participate in subsidy programs, it took three months to get a copy of her lease from her landlord, which she needed for her application. She finally got it a week ago.

Anjerok and her boyfriend both lost their jobs at a Waikiki restaurant in March and haven’t been able to pay their monthly rent, which is about $1,300.

“I’m trying to pay the rent as much as I can,” Anjerok said. “I don’t want to leave because it’s really hard to find another place at this time.”

Anjerok’s experience rings true to Shek. She has one client through her work at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii who tried to apply for rental subsidies but the landlord would not fill out the paperwork necessary for the program, instead telling the tenant to leave.

“How is that OK?” she said. “What choice does a tenant have except try to cut their losses and leave?”

Slater says he knows of too many renters who are doing just that. The fact that the moratorium is renewed monthly, near the end of each month, is stressful and unnecessary, he said.

He pointed out that anyone with a federally backed mortgage can apply for up to a year of mortgage relief, and said he wishes Ige would consider approving a six-month rental moratorium, instead of the current month-to-month extension.

Another challenge is that once the moratorium expires, tenants will still owe back rent. The state’s new subsidy program only covers rent between August and December but renters may still need to pay for previous months.

Slater doesn’t think having a porous moratorium makes sense when so much of the government messaging is focused on telling people to stay home.

“They want us to stay at home, great. We need a home to stay in to make the pandemic solution to stay home work,” he said.

Civil Beat is interested in telling stories of people who are facing eviction as well as the stories of landlords who are struggling to pay their own bills during the pandemic. Email news@civilbeat.org to share your story or find out more.

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