Hawaii residents are expected to get $200 million in rent relief through a new federal funding package that just passed Congress.

The latest COVID-19 relief package is about $900 billion, including $1.7 billion for Hawaii that is intended, among other things, to extend unemployment benefits, fund vaccine distribution and provide a $600 one-time check to some Hawaii residents. State officials say the influx in federal funding for education will likely delay teacher furloughs scheduled for Jan. 1.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz estimated the federal spending bill is about 30% to 40% the size of the federal stimulus package known as the CARES Act that passed earlier this year and noted the measure is missing funding for state operating budgets that he lobbied for. Still, Schatz told Civil Beat he was pleasantly surprised by the bill.

“Considering we are operating in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, this is a surprisingly strong package that will provide billions of dollars of relief,” he said. “It took too long to come to a resolution and it’s certainly not everything that I wanted to get in the bill but people have been suffering for months and months and months and there is a significant amount of help on its way.”

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said there’s lots in the latest spending bill to benefit Hawaii residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Mazie Hirono said the bill doesn’t have the level of unemployment assistance or funding for states that she would have liked and that it took too long to pass, but that she’s hoping Congress will be able to do more under President-elect Joe Biden.

“It’s just an interim bill,” Hirono said of the measure. “We are going to need to do a lot more in the new administration.”

The measure is more than 5,500 pages long and extends the deadline for distributing CARES Act funding until the end of next year. The bill also extends the paycheck protection program, a loan program for businesses, and provides grant money for small businesses and live venues and movie theaters affected by stay-at-home orders.

The proposal includes about $150 million for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in Hawaii and $35 million to fund vaccine distribution efforts in the archipelago. There’s $128 million for airports, buses and other transportation services in Hawaii.

In addition, $25 million would go to child care providers in Hawaii and $30 million to improve broadband access on Hawaiian home lands, among other funding for Native Hawaiian programs. The bill also restores Medicaid eligibility for citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia living in the U.S.

The new federal rent relief program is particularly significant for Hawaii, where rent subsidies have been in high demand. The state had to cut off applications to its rent relief program after nearly 20,000 people applied.

The state and Honolulu together will receive $200 million. The money is key, especially given that the state’s budget shortfall left some legislators uncertain about providing any rent relief this session, despite University of Hawaii scholars underscoring the dire need. The bill also extends the federal eviction moratorium until the end of January.

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke told Civil Beat she hopes the state and city coordinate on how to distribute the funds because lack of coordination on rent relief earlier this year led to duplicate applications and unnecessary administrative hassles and delays.

Hawaii residents who are unemployed or struggling financially due to COVID-19 will find other relief too. The bill includes about $200 million for unemployed Hawaii residents. People earning less than about $65,000 will be eligible for an extra $300 per week, less than the $600 bump granted earlier this year.

Schatz noted the bill includes a 15% increase in food stamps benefits and a one-time cash payment that some immigrants may also receive.

“There’s a $600 cash payment per person who makes $75,000 or less and that includes green card holders and it includes dependents,” Schatz said. “That’s a $700 million infusion of cash into our economy as well.”

Hirono said she and her Democratic colleagues are aware there are still many unmet economic and health care needs and she looks forward to Congress revisiting them.

“It is an emergency measure that needed to be passed,” she said.

Luke said she’s particularly happy about the influx of funding for education and broadband access.

“We’re very thankful to Congress for working very quickly on providing relief for the various states and our citizens,” she said.

Schatz said since the election ended, he and other senators were busy on conference calls and Zoom calls determined to come to an agreement.

“We were pushing as hard as we could and there was for once real bipartisanship,” he said. “The election being over gave us the space to exercise a now atrophied muscle of legislating in a bipartisan fashion.”

Click here to read the full bill.

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