Renters at an apartment complex in Hilo are worried they’ll be forced to leave once Gov. David Ige lifts the eviction moratorium on Aug. 6.

Sen. Laura Acasio, who represents District 1 on Hawaii island, said her office has been flooded with calls from constituents who are worried they’ll be kicked out of their affordable rentals at Waiakea Villas.

“It has caused a lot of anxiety among many, many tenants,” said Acasio, who shared copies of text messages between tenants and their landlord, Honolulu-based Tower Development Inc. The company purchased Waiakea Villas in February 2020.

Several tenants already have received text messages saying they will need to move out after the moratorium is lifted to allow for renovations. A few were told that people who rely on county assistance vouchers to pay rent will not be allowed to use them for the renovated units.

Brenya Bailey (age 5) loves to feed geese and ducks on the grounds of Waiakea Villas as her parents Michael and Shirlene, look on. Waiakea Villas is the only home Brenya has known as the family face an upcoming eviction in August. Photo: Tim Wright
Brenya Bailey, 5, loves to feed geese and ducks on the grounds of Waiakea Villas with her parents Michael and Shirlene. But the family has been asked to leave once the eviction moratorium expires next month. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

The uncertainty among tenants at Waiakea Villas points to a broader fear that evictions will spike next month after the moratorium ends. There’s more money available for rental subsidies, but some service providers fear that money will go to waste if landlords aren’t willing to accept it, a perennial problem facing the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.

Beth Holt, who manages Waiakea Villas for Tower and has been communicating with tenants about the renovations, said the concerns are overblown.

“We are renovating some of our units. We are not evicting mass amounts of people,” Holt said Wednesday.

She said the company has already remodeled 72 units and plans to continue the remodeling with just a few units at a time.

“These tenants need to stop causing mass chaos and making it like there’s actually something happening,” she said. “That’s wrong.”

The call dropped and Holt did not respond to subsequent calls, voicemails and text messages seeking clarification. No one from Tower Development replied to emails seeking comment for this story, and its corporate voicemail box was full.

Why People Are Worried

It’s unclear how many people will have to move out during Waiakea Villas’ renovations. Mike Bailey says he’s one of them.

Bailey and his wife were late on rent multiple times during the pandemic after her hours at work got cut and Bailey was furloughed in September. Even after getting rental assistance from Catholic Charities, they still had to come up with late fees to pay the real estate investment company.

For the past several years they’ve paid $1,050 per month for a one-bedroom shared between the three of them. Now, Bailey says they’re thinking of moving in with family since it’s hard to find a place with comparable rent.

Kristen Alice is the director of community relations for HOPE Services, a nonprofit helping Hawaii residents who are homeless find housing. She also happens to live in Waiakea Villas.

Kristen Alice, who works for Hope Services and lives at Waiakea Villas, is helping some of her neighbors who face an upcoming eviction in August find new housing. Photo: Tim Wright
Kristen Alice, who works for HOPE Services and lives at Waiakea Villas, is helping some of her neighbors who face upcoming evictions in August find new housing. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

“We have a lot of people who have overcome homelessness and use county housing vouchers. We have a lot of people with disabilities,” she said of her neighbors. “I’m scared for them. I don’t even know how they’ll move.”

On Hawaii island, the median home price was far lower than the rest of the state: $460,000 in June, according to data from Title Guaranty. But the county hasn’t been immune to rising home prices and rents.

The June median home price was up more than 20% over June 2020. The median price of a condo was even higher at $485,000, more than 30% higher than the same month last year.

Even before the pandemic, nearly half of the residents of Hawaii County were living below the state’s ALICE threshold — the income needed to make ends meet in Hawaii. Kristen Alice noted that Hawaii County had a higher percentage of families at that level than any other county in the state, in part due to relatively low wages.

Landlords Not Accepting Vouchers

Alice is particularly concerned that some residents have been told the company won’t be accepting Section 8 vouchers for renovated units. HOPE Services has previously placed clients in Waiakea Villas and such a change would shrink the available pool of rentals for their clients.

The Legislature declined to pass a bill this year that would have made it illegal for landlords to deny people housing based on receiving government assistance.

HOPE Services’ housing locators have struggled recently to place people in housing who have Section 8 or other vouchers, sometimes begging property owners to make exceptions, Alice said.

Waiakea Villas in Hilo. Photo: Tim Wright
There are more than 150 residential units at Waiakea Villas in Hilo. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

“We have people spending a longer amount of time in shelters … for the sole reason that no one will rent to them, no one will give them a chance,” she said. “Since people are spending longer in shelters people are spending longer in the streets waiting for that spot to open up.”

Deja Ostrowski, an attorney who works with Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said she has increasingly been concerned about landlords not accepting vouchers especially as more federal funding comes in to support more rental subsidies.

“It’s definitely a broader problem to the point where we’re working with providers to try to do a campaign to get landlords to accept more vouchers,” said Ostrowski.

Ige’s homelessness czar Scott Morishige said one concern is that source-of-income discrimination could mask other types of racial, gender and family discrimination. He said support is growing for banning discrimination against people with vouchers as more Hawaii residents realize how the issue affects them.

“If we’re not able to address the potential stigma and bias associated with these programs, it makes it even more difficult to address homelessness in our communities,” he said.

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