Hawaii counties are racing to distribute millions of dollars in rental and utility assistance before the state’s pandemic-induced eviction moratorium expires, leaving thousands of people at risk of losing their homes.

But there’s a gulf between the estimated number of people who need rent help and the actual number of applicants.

So far, about $2.2 million has been distributed for rent and utility subsidies in Maui County to 316 households, even though the county has an estimated 2,700 residents who are behind on rent and $40 million available.

More than 1,780 people expressed interest in the program on the county’s website. Catholic Charities sent applications to more than 1,500 people who were eligible to apply.

But only 914 had applied as of Tuesday morning.

Nearly 100 Catholic Charities workers process rent and utility relief applications at the Hawaii Convention Center. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat /2021

“It’s been very, very slow there,” said Stella Wong, the program director at Catholic Charities who is managing the COVID-19 rent relief program for the county. “We don’t know what’s going on.”

There’s real urgency to distributing the funds. In less than six weeks, Hawaii’s eviction moratorium will expire. Gov. David Ige has already announced that he’s not going to extend it.

The federal eviction moratorium also expires at the end of July, and President Joe Biden’s administration isn’t planning to extend it. There’s also a Sept. 30 federal deadline for spending down nearly two-thirds of the federal funds in order to keep all of it.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry says officials have been trying to publicize the program on Facebook, on the radio, through media releases and press conferences.

“I sent out an email to all of the 2,700 employees of Maui County asking them to reach out to their friends, neighbors and family,” he said.

Applications Have Slowed

The lack of applications is troubling because so many people are in need. Hawaii’s sky-high unemployment rates last year due to pandemic shutdowns meant thousands fell behind on rent. In May, the unemployment rate was still more than 8%, about four times higher than pre-pandemic levels. Kauai and Maui have had particularly high unemployment rates.

The National Equity Atlas estimates 26,000 Hawaii individuals and families are behind on rent and need more than $140 million in subsidies. More than 18,000 are on Oahu, 2,800 on Hawaii island, 2,700 on Maui and 1,000 on Kauai.

Demand for COVID-19 rent and utility relief surged last year during the first round of federal funding last August. Back then, the state capped rent relief applications at 20,000 in order to meet a three-month deadline.

“To my knowledge every county is having a little bit of a struggle hitting the benchmarks.” — Maui Housing Director Adam Roversi

Denise Iseri-Matsubara from the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp. said the state eventually spent $63 million on housing assistance through Catholic Charities and Aloha United Way. Another $8 million went toward administration.

The state ended up transferring $29 million to the unemployment insurance program.

Similar to last year, the first two rounds of COVID-19 rental assistance on Oahu this spring were slammed with applications. One round closed after just 20 minutes of being open due to overwhelming demand.

But since then, applications have slowed. Amy Asselbaye, executive director of the City & County of Honolulu Office of Economic Revitalization, said last week Honolulu is still accepting applications for its third round that opened on June 7. The city has also increased the income eligibility level to 80% of area median income.

Honolulu has distributed $30 million to at least 3,500 households as of last week with an average payout of $7,700 per household, Asselbaye said. A total of $180 million is available, she said, although not all of it is in the bank yet.

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, Honolulu closed its application process after reaching 10,000 applications. The city will re-open it after it reviews its applications.

What’s The Problem?

For those who apply, it can take a while to get paid if applications are not complete.

“The main sticking point that has caused delays is getting the W9s from landlords,” Asselbaye said.

She’s hopeful Oahu will be able to meet the federal September deadline.

“We feel that we should be able to meet that based on average payouts and the numbers of applications we’ve received, but we’ll see,” she said.

Hawaii island has received 1,170 applications and approved 423. But almost as many, 389, have been rejected due to lack of information, duplicate information, ineligibility or other reasons.

Compared to Maui County, Kauai has had more applications. But its housing director Adam Roversi says more outreach is still needed to make sure the county meets the September deadline.

Kauai County, which has less than half the population of Maui, received 1,066 applications requesting $7.5 million in back rent and prospective rent and $386,000 in utility assistance as of Monday, Roversi says.

Kauai has spent more than $3 million to help 462 households.

“To my knowledge every county is having a little bit of a struggle hitting the benchmarks,” Roversi says.

Roversi thinks some people might be daunted by the documentation involved, including tax returns, to get rental help. They also may not yet be aware of the program or the urgency of it, he says.

Another challenge is the eligibility criteria. People have to fall below a certain income threshold to qualify and have to be able to show that their income was affected by the pandemic.

Oahu is facing similar challenges, said Asselbaye.

“The wreckage has been pretty deep across our islands,” Asselbaye said. “We want to see everybody made whole coming out of this pandemic.”

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