Honolulu recently closed its online aid portal after it was flooded with applications.

High rents and overall inflation have contributed to an increase in evictions on Oahu after a lull amid a pandemic moratorium, with 703 evictions last year compared to 333 in 2020, according to the most recent data from the state Judiciary.

The eviction moratorium, which prohibited a landlord from removing a tenant from their home for not paying rent, took effect in April 2020 as the state rushed to offer protections to residents suffering economically as businesses and the vital tourism industry essentially shut down.

The number of evictions cases filed on Hawaii’s most populous island dropped from over 1,700 in 2019 to 659 in 2020, while the number of evictions dropped from over 1,100 in 2019 to the 333 in 2020. 

The moratorium ended over a year later, triggering Act 57, which gave tenants the right to request a mediation session with their landlord. The state-funded sessions helped landlords and tenants reach agreements and avoid the court system.

"For Rent" sign at the Kapiolani Village Apartments in Honolulu.
Mediation helped hundreds of landlords and tenants reach agreement to avoid eviction after the pandemic-era moratorium expired. (Alex Eichenstein/CivilBeat/2023)

“A lot of (landlords and tenants), had we not had that mediation, probably would have never talked to each other, and (the tenants) would have ended up being evicted,” said Tracey Wiltgen, executive director at the Mediation Center of the Pacific, which provides landlord-tenant mediation services.

While Act 57 was in effect, the mediation center opened over 3,000 eviction mediation cases, resulting in more than 1,200 written agreements. The nonprofit organization was able to keep up with demand by contracting mediators, many of whom were based on the mainland and conducted the hour and a half long sessions over Zoom. In 2021, 844 eviction cases were filed and 504 evictions occurred.

“We saw the benefits of mediation and rental assistance working together,” said Wiltgen.

But the law expired in August 2022, and the number of eviction cases filed increased to more than 1,100 that year, with over 700 decided in favor of the landlord. From July 2022 through May 2023, MCP opened over 1,300 landlord-tenant cases, nearly double the amount the organization opened in Hawaii in 2019, even though they’re no longer being funded by the state. For Wiltgen, this signals “more tenants are struggling now,” than before the pandemic. 

“One of the biggest challenges for tenants is being able to find a place that’s affordable for them, particularly if they’re making less than they were prior to Covid,” she said.

There were 655 cases filed and 247 evictions from January through the end of May, according to the figures provided by the Judiciary. That is still below the 2019 figures, but advocates are concerned about the trend upward.

The average rent in Honolulu is $2,600 a month, $100 more than it was at this time last year, and $500 more than the national average, according to data from Zillow.

For many Oahu residents, the economic pressure caused by rising rents is intensified by the ballooning cost of living

Pierre Watts is a Honolulu tenant who feels he’s being forced out of his home. He has lived in the Kapiolani Village Apartments for three years and pays just under $1,400 a month for his one-bedroom unit. But the Kobayashi Group, a real estate development firm, is planning to tear down the complex and replace it with a 43-story high-rise condominium

  • Special Report

“It's expensive to live in town. And now they’re going to make it even more expensive, because they’re tearing down (my) place and building a place that (I) have to buy, and it's not affordable to buy,” said Watts. The Kapiolani Village tenants haven't been evicted but must vacate by October. Each household received $1,500 in assistance.

More than half of the new condominium units will be sold at prices affordable to households that earn between $104,500 and $158,600 for a family of four, and the rest are expected to sell for between $370,000 and $1.25 million.

“The price of paradise is going up,” said Watts. 

Pierre Watts is a Honolulu renter who feels he's being forced out of his apartment due to rising costs and development.
Pierre Watts is a Honolulu renter who feels he's being forced out of his apartment due to rising costs and development. (Alex Eichenstein/CivilBeat/2023)

The city’s answer to the eviction problem is paying up to six months of rent and utility bills for eligible renters through the Rental and Utility Relief Program. Because the program was established to help Oahu residents experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic, bills issued since March 13, 2020, qualify for coverage. The latest applications will be supported by $25 million in funds that the Honolulu City Council approved in February. 

The online application portal closed earlier this month just over two hours after reopening for the seventh time since April 2021. It received 2,000 applications. 

Because it was the portal’s first time reopening in six months,there may have been some pent-up demand,” said Patrick Williams, director of communications for the Office of Economic Revitalization, which manages the program. 

But the office has seen high demand for rental relief before. During the portal’s May 2021 reopening, it received 4,000 applications in less than 20 minutes. The program is only a short-term solution, though, and eligible renters may still be evicted while waiting to receive the funds. 

“We're seeing people who are very afraid, and they really want to work something out to be able to stay in their current residence," Wiltgen said. "And I think that's why we saw so many people applying for rental assistance when the portal opened."

"Struggling To Get By" is part of our series on "Hawaii's Changing Economy" which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author