Like hundreds of thousands of other Hawaii residents, Winter Popiwchak lost his jobs after the pandemic hit.

He had been offering snorkeling tours on a charter boat and working part-time at a movie theater when the state’s visitor industry ground to a sudden halt after Gov. David Ige issued the first stay-at-home order in March.

The Kaimuki resident has spent the past several months job hunting, taking classes online and relying on unemployment checks.

It’s a new reality that Popiwchak adjusted to — that is, until his landlord told him that he needed to leave by the end of January.

Closeup of red, white for rent sign attached, hanging on wooden apartment, house, home, building door with glass windows
Vacancy rates are up in Hawaii but many people don’t have the incomes to qualify as renters. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ige imposed an eviction moratorium through Feb. 14, but it has loopholes. Landlords can’t raise rents and can’t ask people who don’t pay rent to leave, but they can move back into their units or sell their properties.

Popiwchack said he has been paying rent using a state assistance program. But with his landlord’s daughter moving into the house, he finds himself among a group of tenants falling through the cracks.

The pandemic has created an uneven result for Hawaii renters: in Honolulu, rents are slightly cheaper and property managers say more units are available. But tens of thousands more people are unemployed or relying on rental subsidies, which makes finding a unit a lot harder.

Phil Garboden, a housing expert at the University of Hawaii, said the moratorium was a disaster response mechanism aimed at protecting people’s health by helping them stay in place.

But he knows of no programs aimed at helping renters without jobs find a new dwelling if they lose housing.

“There’s no part of the (pandemic) assistance programs that really solves that problem,” Garboden said.

Renting Easier For Some

Not everyone is having a hard time finding a place to rent. The state’s rental vacancy rate has actually gone up, Garboden found in a fall survey. Thousands of people have left Hawaii as unemployment skyrocketed.

That’s led to falling rents in lower-end properties, says Cheryl Kunimoto, a Realtor and president of Marie Hansen Properties, which manages about 600 rental units on Oahu.

She has seen rents fall in Waikiki and Maikiki in rental units under $1,800. Apartments that used to rent for $1,500 each are now going for about $1,250, Kunimoto said.

She suspects this is partly due to people in the service industry losing their jobs and giving up their units to move in with family or leave the island. She hasn’t seen the same increase in supply and loosening of rents among units in East Honolulu or those with monthly rents above $2,000.

“If you have a job, and you have good credit and you qualify it’s definitely easier (to rent) because we are looking to fill our units,” she said.

“If you don’t have a job, then it’s definitely harder,” she said. Part of the problem is that landlords are worried about not getting paid and are being more careful about choosing renters, she said.

Don Harris, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty Maui, said he relies on rental income to cover the mortgage on his property on Maui. When choosing a tenant recently, he was careful to find someone with a steady job.

Harris also has a client who is selling his property in part because he fears renting it out and losing money while the eviction moratorium is in place.

“You’re always most concerned about (renters) having a steady income, making sure they had a job that would likely not be affected by COVID,” he said. “I would imagine as a renter right now if you’re in the travel industry, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to find a rental.”

Harris hasn’t noticed falling rents on Maui — on the contrary, he says rental demand is high, including from mainlanders moving to Hawaii to wait out the pandemic.

That’s a problem for Dania Novack Katz, who says competition is tough even with a job as she looks for a two-bedroom rental for herself and her daughter.

“I have excellent credit, I have money for first and last and the deposit and people are beating me out,” she said. To her, the pandemic’s impact on Hawaii’s housing market is full of stark contradictions.

“I’ve known maybe about 20 people who have left the island and I also know several real estate agents that are having their best year ever,” she said.

More People On Assistance

South Kona resident Raina Rasmussen is also scrambling to find a place to rent after her landlord told her that she needs to leave because he’s selling the property.

She lost her job at a farmers market when the pandemic hit and said she hasn’t been able to get unemployment insurance.

“I’ve never not paid my rent, I’ve never been a squatter, I’ve never done anything like that in my life,” Rasmussen said. “How do I get a new place if I don’t have a job or income on the books?”

Now that the state is expecting a $200 million influx of federal funding for rental subsidies, Garboden thinks it would make sense to target the funding to help people like Rasmussen.

“How do I get a new place if I don’t have a job or income on the books?” — South Kona resident Raina Rasmussen

The state already has expanded the Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known as Section 8, and is paying for thousands of rental subsidies with federal funds. Kunimoto said her company has seen a noticeable increase in renters who are applying with state subsidy vouchers from programs like Section 8.

But not every landlord accepts those subsidies. In Hawaii, it’s common to see rental ads saying “No Section 8” and the law doesn’t provide protections for renters who rely on government subsidies.

The state Senate passed a bill last year to prevent discrimination against Section 8 renters, but the bill died in the House. Sen. Karl Rhoads said he plans to re-introduce the bill this year during the legislative session that begins on Jan. 20.

Gavin Thornton, head of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice which advocates on behalf of low-income people, said Rhoads’ bill will be a priority this year for his organization.

When the pandemic hit and the state boosted its rental subsidies, “it would have been tremendously helpful to have a source of income discrimination law that didn’t allow landlords to opt out of participating,” he said.

Now many more people are relying on state and federal assistance. As of November, more than 36,000 people were still accepting unemployment assistance in Hawaii, including 16,000 people who had relied on unemployment for more than 15 weeks. 

More than 13,000 have received federal rental subsidies through the state, and the Hawaii Housing Authority expanded the Section 8 program to add 750 more voucher recipients. Still more people are relying on rental assistance through the counties.

“For the guys at the bottom who were already struggling before the pandemic, they’re really struggling now and that’s why you have guys at the food bank and why the affordable housing part of it is so important,” Rhoads said.

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