Despite losing his job last year, Eduardo Hernandez still considers himself one of the lucky ones. As he gazed out his condo window in Kakaako, he watched the homeless couple he befriended begin another day on the sidewalk.
“I made sure I could pay my rent, and in fact, didn’t pay other things,” he said. “I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with my landlord.”
Hernandez qualified for unemployment benefits a few months after losing his job, and in April he received approval for full coverage for three months of rent through the federally funded Rental and Utility Relief Program. The program is administered by Catholic Charities Hawaii and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement to help qualified people on Oahu pay rent and utility bills, going back to March 13, 2020, current bills, or future bills through December, depending on a household’s needs. After seeing the approval notification, Hernandez said he could finally breathe.
“It’s a lifesaving program, providing housing stability at every level,” he said. “And it allowed me to continue diligently looking for work.” Hernandez spent 15 months unemployed, and ecstatically said that he started his new job on Monday.
A county spokesman said the city’s Rental and Utility Relief Program is the “best in the nation in terms of distributing funds and assistance to those in need.”
But while the program has worked for some, it’s also created frustration for renters, landlords, intake specialists and others desperate for better communication and more answers. And as the August end date for eviction protection creeps closer, many are searching for answers.
The Waiting Game
The program’s funds are distributed on a case-by-case basis, making it a unique experience for every applicant.
On July 3, Hernandez received an email that the application portal would reopen July 12. He said he needed to apply for one additional month of rent to compensate for the lag between his first paycheck and his rental due date.
“I was actually almost physically ill trying to predict, ‘Is it going to happen?’”
On July 12, Hernandez waited anxiously for the portal to open, feeling the pressure of the Aug. 6 eviction moratorium end date. Four days later, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement sent out an email saying the portal would not open, and did not include a new date for the next reopening. Honolulu’s Office of Economic Revitalization said the July 12 date was accidentally sent out.
Hernandez is just one of the 16,000 households in Hawaii struggling to make rent payments for next month, according to the National Equity Atlas. Based on the first two rounds of applications, a majority of those approved were from households making 30% of the area median income, which is less than $38,000 a year for a household of four people.
In April, the Office of Economic Revitalization received 8,000 applications in the first four hours, and it took only 20 minutes to reach 4,000 applications in May. Over 6,800 of those were declined because they were duplicates, requests for mortgage help, potentially fraudulent and for “other reasons.” In June, applications slowed dramatically, taking over three weeks to reach 10,000.
As of Monday, 5,300 Oahu households were approved with $39.9 million distributed. Amy Asselbaye, the office’s executive director, said she is confident that the $180 million still available is enough to support the needs of the community, based on an average payout per household of $7,700.
“We’re more concerned about making sure that people get the information, making sure that people understand how to apply and that they have access,” Asselbaye said.
On Friday, Gov. David Ige confirmed that tenant protection from eviction would end Aug. 6. In an effort to avoid mass evictions across the state, he referenced the revisions made to House Bill 1376, giving tenants more time and resources if they’re at risk of eviction.
Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who introduced the bill, said evictions work in tiers. For the first 30 days after Aug. 6, only tenants who are behind on four months of rent or more are at risk of eviction. Two months after the first 30 days, tenants behind on three months are at risk, and it will continue to dwindle every two months until tenants behind on one month of rent are at risk.
Tracey Wiltgen, executive director of the Mediation Center of the Pacific, estimates there will be between 1,500 and 2,000 initial filings after the eviction moratorium is lifted.
She encouraged tenants at risk of eviction to participate in mediation to try to reach some sort of agreement with their landlords.
Kihei resident Kris Thomas, a drummer who has spent two decades performing with local artists such as the late William Kahaialii and John Cruz, said he has found the process of securing financial relief to be exhausting.
“Sometimes I break out in tears,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I cannot handle another email or scan another document.”
Unlike others who have resumed near-normal working conditions, Thomas said live performances are not back, especially for larger bands. Thomas shared a string of confusing emails with different intake specialists from Catholic Charities Hawaii, a partner of the Rental and Utility Relief Program. To be clear, neighbor island residents aren’t eligible for the Oahu program and must apply to their county’s relief program, which is what Thomas did on Maui.
On July 6, he received confirmation that he would receive rental aid for March, August, September and October of this year. On July 13, he received another email denying rental and utility aid due to alternative approved funding that they said “may possibly” be from the same funding account and an overpayment that occurred in March. According to records, Thomas received partial rental aid from the Rent Relief and Housing Assistance Program from August through December.
Thomas said all of the aid he received went straight to his landlord but he was accused of fraud, asked to give a home tour over Zoom and forced to submit an alternative job plan.
“I’ve been humiliated and talked down to,” Thomas said. “This is a pandemic and when it’s over, I hope the music industry goes back to normal and I can be who I have been for the last 40 years of my life.”
For people like Thomas, who applied to multiple aid programs to cover rent, there are no clear eligibility guidelines for applicants based on which programs can or cannot be overlapped. The Office of Economic Revitalization, the Local 5 hospitality and health care union and the Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth Project were unable to clarify which rental aid programs allowed double-dipping.
“State is different from private funding, and that’s different from federal funding, but there’s so many different programs that offer aid,” Local 5 intake specialist Caitlin Sabado said. “I really always have to go back to a supervisor to like double-check and recheck.”
Unfortunately for all parties involved, the agencies have not found a clear way to communicate to applicants what are their best options. Thomas said depending on the person he talked with, he’d receive a different answer on his eligibility for aid.
Landlords Are Trying To Help
Tim Kelley, principal broker of Stott Property Management, said there is one tenant who hasn’t paid rent since January 2020 and another who is roughly five months behind. But some are finding relief.
Since April, Kelley has had 25 tenants successfully apply for rental assistance through the Rental and Utility Relief Program.
He estimated that 80% of the 375 rental units the company has available are listed below the median rent. He said since the relief program started, he’s mailed letters, sent emails and called tenants who are behind on payments to assist with the application process.
The Office of Economic Revitalization said if a landlord can obtain any form of communication from the tenant giving consent to apply on their behalf, the landlord may do so. Kelley said he’s most frustrated with tenants behind on rent who fail to respond or accept help.
Sabado spends weeks waiting for applicants to respond with the correct documents needed to complete the application process. Local 5 is just one of a handful of partners that work with Catholic Charities Hawaii to review applications.
“If you are truly struggling to pay for your rent and utilities, then it would be great to see some people make the effort to get back to us,” Sabado said.
She said her recommendation to people who struggle with technology or language barriers is to reach out to young people in their household or take advantage of partnerships with local nonprofits.
Asselbaye said over time the application process should become easier too. When most of the first round of emergency rental assistance funds have been distributed, the second ERA funds will be distributed with more leniency. Instead of having to show harm from COVID-19, it can be any kind of economic harm, Asselbaye said, although the earliest that restriction will be dropped is September.
While the application process requires identification, Asselbaye said that having a Social Security number is not required but a government-issued ID is necessary. They report who receives aid to the federal government.
Asselbaye confirmed that they have not yet set a July date for the application portal to reopen, but hopes to do so before the eviction moratorium ends.
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Lauren Teruya is a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.