Honolulu’s federally funded emergency rental assistance program prepared to reopen next week amid fears of a flood of new applications after Friday’s expiration of a statewide eviction ban imposed during the pandemic.

Although Gov. David Ige on Friday confirmed that the new federal eviction freeze applies to eligible tenants in Honolulu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties, it’s unclear how long the extra protection from eviction will last.

The federal order imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection on Tuesday expires when a county no longer has substantial or high levels of community transmission for 14 consecutive days or on Oct. 3, whichever comes sooner.

This extension of protection from eviction does not come automatically to those who qualify, however.

Makiki real estate apartments. 24 nov 2016
Gov. David Ige ratified a new law that temporarily requires landlords and tenants to try to resolve pandemic-related disputes over unpaid rent with a mediator before taking the issue to court. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Tenants who qualify for the order should fill out the CDC declaration form and provide a signed copy of the form to their landlord in order to be protected from eviction.

Since April the Rental and Utility Relief Program has processed more than 22,000 applications for Oahu since April, awarding $47.8 million in rent and utility help to 5,947 households, said Patrick Williams, spokesman for Honolulu’s Office of Economic Revitalization.

But that’s far short of the $180 million in federal funds for emergency rental assistance that have been allocated for Hawaii’s most populous island.

Congressman Kai Kahele said it was crucial to accelerate the process of getting federal dollars for rent assistance into the hands of tenants and landlords.

“There should be no evictions in Hawaii when federal funds are available to ensure tenants can remain current on their rent and landlords can be made whole,” the Hawaii Democrat said in a letter to Gov. David Ige on Wednesday.

The Rental and Utility Relief Program has periodically shut down to new applicants on a temporary basis when it received more applications than it could process in a timely manner.

In some cases the program resumed accepting applications only to stop again about a half-hour later, frustrating both tenants and landlords seeking rent relief, according to Lisa Kimura, Aloha United Way’s Vice President of Community Impact.

These periodic shutdowns are intended to afford the city government and its community partners, Catholic Charities Hawaii and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, time to process the backlog of applications.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said the program has dispersed about $1.5 million a day.

“We feel pretty good about the pace that we’re on right now,” he said Thursday at a press conference.

The issue has taken on urgency after Ige announced earlier this year that he would not extend an eviction moratorium due to expire on Friday. The moratorium was put in place more than 15 months ago, to protect tenants who fell behind on their rent after stay-at-home orders prompted by the pandemic put hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele questioned the efficiency of the distribution of federal funds for emergency rent assistance in Hawaii in a letter to Gov. David Ige. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

Although it has helped renters keep their housing over the last 15 months, it’s been frustrating for landlords who haven’t been able to count on rental income. 

Starting Friday, Hawaii landlords may start serving eviction notices to tenants at least four months behind on their rent.

A new federal order that would freeze evictions in parts of the country that are experiencing “substantial” or “high” levels of coronavirus transmission could offer some Hawaii tenants up to 60 more days of protection from eviction. But it’s unclear who in Hawaii might qualify for the extension.

“People are terrified right now and just hoping that they’re going to stay housed,” Kimura said.

“There’s never been enough rent assistance even prior to COVID for the amount of people who need it. Now that we have this massive crush of people needing it, in addition to people in that gap area who earn too much money to qualify for it, it’s just going to be really challenging,” she said.

Oahu’s emergency rental assistance program is geared toward tenants with incomes no greater than 80% of the area median income, which varies by county. On Oahu, the income limit is $100,700 a year or less for a four-person household.

Additionally, a household can qualify regardless of income if at least one member has been unemployed for 90 days at the time of application.

The average payout per household has been about $7,700, according to Amy Asselbaye, the Office of Economic Revitalization’s executive director.

Rep Troy Hashimoto on house floor during recess.
State Rep. Troy Hashimoto helped write new legislation requiring mediation for landlords and tenants. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Each county has its own clearinghouse for applications. But the neighbor islands haven’t had the difficulty that Oahu has had in processing applications, said state Rep. Troy Hashimoto.

“On Oahu it’s not a situation where they don’t have enough funds, they just need to process the applications quicker,” he said.

Hashimoto helped write the legislation that temporarily changes the landlord-tenant code to incentivize mediation as an alternative to eviction. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved but we do want to get the applications reviewed faster so we can spend this money down and get people the help they need.”

Hashimoto said Hawaii’s new legislation that requires landlords and tenants to mediate their disputes is aimed to curb the total number of evictions while preventing the courts from getting inundated with eviction cases. Matching eligible tenants with rent relief is expected to be a key part of the equation.

Another hurdle to distributing the funding is that some landlords have been resistant to accepting emergency rental assistance because they don’t want to come onto the radar of county government. 

“There are a lot of landlords who won’t accept the money because it comes with government scrutiny and tax scrutiny,” said Jack Slater, who leads the Honolulu Tenants Union. “There are so many unpermitted and untaxed rentals here and these landlords don’t want to accept the relief for that reason.”

Hashimoto said this may be a reason why the neighbor island emergency rental assistance programs have received fewer applications than expected.

David Chee, a Honolulu attorney who represents landlords and tenants in housing disputes, said he’s concerned about the housing security of tenants who earn too much money to qualify for rental assistance but are still struggling to pay their rent due to bills and other financial commitments.

“Unless the population that owes rent is vastly skewed towards people who have less-than-median income, then I don’t see the rent relief program as being sufficiently robust to save everybody,” Chee said.

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