The Hawaii Legislature has passed a bill that would make it easier for the state to lift its pandemic-related eviction moratorium this summer.

Gov. David Ige implemented an eviction moratorium a year ago that prevents landlords from kicking out tenants for not paying their rent. The state moratorium is scheduled to expire on June 8.

On Wednesday, the Legislature sent House Bill 1376 to Ige, who has until July 6 to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Hawaii Rep. Troy Hashimoto, the bill’s main author, said he’s hopeful the governor will sign the measure and that the moratorium could be lifted by late July or early August.

Without the state moratorium, Hawaii tenants who lost their income sources during the pandemic might still be protected by a separate federal eviction moratorium that’s been extended through the end of June. But the removal of the more expansive state moratorium is still expected to trigger a flood of evictions.

Thousands of Hawaii renters have avoided eviction this pandemic but the end of the moratorium may come as soon as this summer. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hashimoto hopes the bill, which focuses on providing and encouraging mediation, will help landlords and tenants work out their debt without going to court. But he said renters who are behind on rent should be tackling that now.

“The bottom line is we want people to know if you have any back rent, you shouldn’t wait until the eviction moratorium ends. You should be thinking ahead now.”

The bill sets up a graduated schedule of evictions, permitting landlords to start by evicting tenants who owe at least four months of rent. The measure gives tenants more time to respond to their eviction notice and gives them the right to request a free mediation session, which the landlord must attend and comes with free language interpreter services.

Deja Ostrowski, attorney with Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaiʻi, which works with families in Kalihi, said she’s concerned that the bill doesn’t go far enough, in part because tenants have struggled to access rent relief. She thinks that rent relief should be exhausted before the moratorium is lifted and is worried that there isn’t enough funding.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the city’s rent relief application closed down in less than four hours earlier this month after getting overwhelmed with more than 8,000 applications.

Phil Garboden, a University of Hawaii professor who focuses on housing, noted HB 1376 is focused on trying to catch people right before the worst outcome, eviction.

“As of right now we have a lot of money for rental assistance and the real challenge we have is getting the money in the right hands,” he said.

Hashimoto said he thinks it’s too early to tell if there’s enough money to meet the rental assistance demand because not all applicants may be eligible.

“In theory the number should be enough but in practice we just don’t know yet,” he said of rental subsidies. “We think it’s enough but you never know.”

He disagrees with the idea that the moratorium removal should wait until after rental subsidies are distributed. Hashimoto said he hopes the governor lifts the moratorium this summer because he’s heard concerns from landlords about bad tenants.

“I think legitimately there are people who do not deserve to take advantage of the eviction moratorium because they’re just not paying. We need to make sure that landlords can get them out,” he said.

The statewide unemployment rate was 8.6% in March, and as high as 12% and 13% on Maui and Kauai respectively. Hashimoto said he hopes that by the summer with tourism returning, more people will be back at work.

He noted that the federal funding for rent relief includes an income cap and not everyone will be eligible for it.

“The reality is government is not going to be able to help everyone,” Hashimoto said. “Unfortunately we are not going to be able to solve all the economic issues.”

Pros And Cons

David Chee, an attorney for landlords in Hawaii, said he’s glad the bill passed. He provided input on the measure along with other organizations such as the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, which works with low-income renters.

“The whole situation is bad for so many people and it’s been so long that the landlords have been bearing a lot of this and so it’s just good to have a path back to normalcy,” Chee said.

But some tenant advocates worry that there is more that lawmakers could have done to keep renters housed.

Jack Slater, who leads the Honolulu Tenants Union, said he’s heard from many renters who are struggling against landlords trying to push them out despite the moratorium.

“That moratorium is the only thing that’s keeping these families in their homes right now,” he said.

House staff is masked and gloved during the COVID-19 pandemic before house floor session. April 8. 2021
Advocates worry a wave of evictions could start later this summer if Gov. David Ige signs the bill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Slater wishes the Legislature had allocated money for rent forgiveness instead millions for mediation services.

“Renters need actual relief and rent forgiveness. Without any of those in place an eviction is inevitable,” he said. “We had rental assistance come through and then it was gone in just a few hours. Spending the money on mediation instead of giving it to the renters is just ridiculous to us.”

Ostrowski from the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii said she’s worried about whether tenants will understand that they have a right to mediation and whether they will know their rights within mediation.

Hashimoto said the bill doesn’t include any funding for public information campaigns to ensure tenants are aware of their rights to mediation and other rights when the moratorium lifts.

“We are going to trust the executive department to really figure that out,” Hashimoto said, adding that perhaps the funding for public awareness could come out of federal funds for rental subsidies.

Ostrowski said she’s particularly concerned about whether tenants — particularly non-English-speaking tenants — will be aware of their rights to mediation and what that means.

Both Ostrowski and Slater said they have spoken with tenants whose landlords refuse to participate in government assistance programs and others who don’t understand how long it takes to get assistance.

The Legislature considered a bill that would ban landlords from discriminating against people who have rental subsidies but the measure died. House Bill 1376 doesn’t include any requirement that landlords participate in good faith in mediation, just that they show up if a tenant requests it.

“If people are still trying to wait for the processing of their rental assistance and have an uncooperative landlord who just refuses to agree to anything in mediation, it’s really unclear what’s going to happen besides those cases going to court,” Ostrowski said.

Avoiding clogging the courts is a key goal of the legislation. Chee, the attorney for landlords, described it as effectively putting Hawaii tenants on a payment plan by allowing evictions for tenants who are most behind on rent first.

“If they can manage to keep their rent arrearage down below the threshold amounts then they should be able to keep their housing,” he said.

Hashimoto acknowledged that some people may have to move.

“If you don’t qualify for federal funds then maybe it’s time to really think about (if) you need to be starting to look for a new place,” he said.

Ostrowski worries that may not be an option for everyone.

“I think for a lot of people if they could have moved to another place they would have already,” she said. “Mediation hinges on the idea that there’s another place for people to move to.”

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