Key Hawaii House lawmakers say they aren’t sure if they are going to provide additional rental assistance in next year’s legislative session, despite overwhelming demand currently for rental subsidies and a pandemic with no apparent end.

“That’s such a hard question to answer,” said House Rep. Takashi Ohno, who leads the Intrastate Commerce Committee, in a press conference Tuesday. He added that he thinks providing rental subsidies would be wise but said whether or not it happens depends on a range of factors, including what the community wants.

“The process of appropriating our tax dollars really comes down to what we hear from our constituents,” he said.

Part of the challenge is that statewide shutdowns prompted by the pandemic have led to less tax revenue, which means less money to support state programs.

“The budget picture is very bleak,” said House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti.

Here’s how much money has been disbursed by the state rental assistance program as of Tuesday. 

The legislators spoke Tuesday following a Facebook Live informational briefing about the state’s rental assistance program, a partnership with Aloha United Way and Catholic Charities funded by federal CARES Act money. The organizations are trying to give out $87.5 million in rental assistance by the end of the year. So far, just under $10 million has been disbursed.

Representatives from the state Housing Finance and Development Corp., Catholic Charities and Aloha United Way said that they’re constantly increasing their pace of giving out rental assistance.

“We got off to a slow start. We needed to start up the program, get the data in place, the contracts in place,” explained Janice Takahashi, chief planner at HHFDC.

John Fink, chief executive officer of Aloha United Way, compared the process to running a train while building the tracks. So far, the organization has only been able to get back to 60% of the people who have applied. He said he’s cautiously optimistic that all the applications will be processed by the second week of December.

Robert “Rob” Van Tassell, president of Catholic Charities Hawaii said the first million dollars took over a week to disburse but now the organization is close to disbursing a million dollars a day, and aims to exceed that rate.

There are lots of obstacles to getting the money out on time. Tassell said about 10% of the applications are duplicates. Landlords also need to verify their information with Catholic Charities online.

Rep. Dale Kobayashi said that landlords like himself are struggling and said he hasn’t been able to reach anyone at the state rental assistance program to advocate on behalf of his constituents.

Many landlords have been frustrated with the state eviction moratorium, which also prohibits them from increasing the rent.

“If any landlord raises the rent and someone is aware of that, they should file a complaint with my office and we will look into it,” said Steve Levins, who leads the state Office of Consumer Protection and is in charge of enforcing the moratorium. He said his office’s landlord-tenant hotline used to get 15 to 20 calls per day and now gets 50 per day.

But Kobayashi noted that tenants are struggling more than landlords, saying earning less money is less painful than losing the roof over your head.

“The question is, do I cut his leg off or do I cut my thumb off? And the answer every time is make it fast,” he said.

There are so many tenants who need help that the state rental assistance program stopped accepting applications once it reached nearly 20,000 applications. Belatti urged renters who still need help to apply to county rental assistance programs, and noted that state-funded mediation exists for landlords and tenants who are at odds.

The vast majority of Hawaii renters are still paying their rent, according to a survey by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. But Philip Garboden, a professor at UHERO, noted the same survey found that nearly half the people who have paid rent on time in Hawaii struggled to do so.

Despite additional federal funding for unemployed people this year, already more than 26,000 Hawaii residents have been late on rent payments, with about 15,000 more than one month late, Garboden said. Meanwhile, the number of vacant units has doubled, the survey found.

Garboden said 14,000 households are expected to continue to need rental assistance in the last quarter of 2020 and the state is expected to still be short 44,000 jobs.

Congress isn’t planning on passing additional federal stimulus until after the election and despite the state’s reopening, the hospitality industry is still shedding jobs.

“No one has a grasp on what happens come Jan. 1,” Fink from Aloha United Way said.

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