Section 8 tenants of Villages of Moe’e Ku fear they could be forced from their homes if proposed rent increases go through.

Honolulu officials say they will investigate notices of rental increases that were issued to some Section 8 tenants at an affordable housing complex in Ewa Beach. 

Robei Broadous, administrator of the city’s Department of Community Services’ community assistance division, which oversees the city’s Section 8 voucher program, said the city was already aware of one instance of a tenant at Villages of Moe’e Ku receiving a notice that her rent would more than double. After an inquiry from Civil Beat, Broadous said the city would investigate whether 12 other families who hold Section 8 vouchers and live at the property have received similar notices.

If the city finds a pattern of Section 8 tenants being overcharged, the matter would be referred to the attorney general for investigation, she said.

One tenant at Villages of Moa’e Ku received a notice that rent for her three-bedroom apartment would rise from $2,032 to $4,656 — an increase of nearly 130%. Another, who has a federal Section 8 voucher, received notice that her one-bedroom rent would go from $1,701 to $2,330 — or an increase of about 37%. The rent hikes are supposed to go into effect on Nov. 1, according to notice letters provided to Civil Beat.

Villages of Moa’e Ku is an affordable housing complex managed by EAH Housing, a nonprofit organization that has developments in Hawaii and California. 

Villages of Moa’e Ku, managed by EAH Housing, issued notices to some of its tenants that their rents would more than double. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

Clarice Veloso, a spokeswoman for EAH Housing, did not respond to questions about why the housing organization was raising rents so much for certain tenants and said the supervisor of Villages of Moa’e Ku was not available for an interview.

Emails and calls to Villages of Moa’e Ku’s management office were not returned. 

Villages of Moa’e Ku serves tenants making between $39,300 and $78,600 for a family of four. The range is $27,550 to $55,050 for individuals, according to the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

Tenants who don’t have Section 8 vouchers can qualify for different units based on their income, and rents range from $1,348 for a three-bedroom to $464 for a one-bedroom, according to the complex’s website.  It’s unclear if the rents listed on the website take recent rental increases into account. All units in each of the complex’s three phases have a waitlist, the website says.

But rents work differently for tenants in the Section 8 program, which provides vouchers allowing tenants to rent from private landlords with payment assistance from the government. The voucher holder’s share of the rent cannot exceed 30% of their income, and the program pays the difference.

But that doesn’t mean Section 8 will agree to cover any amount, and if the program denies a requested rental increase, the tenant may have to leave the apartment or risk losing the voucher.

Section 8 voucher holders at Villages of Moa’e Ku said they feared retaliation if they spoke up about rent increases at the complex. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

There are limits to what both the city and state programs will pay depending on the unit size, the tenant’s household income and the area where they’re renting, said Broadous. But these standards are meant to represent the absolute highest amount the program will cover, not the amount that a landlord should charge.

For example, the payment standard for Honolulu’s Section 8 program for a three-bedroom in the Ewa area is $4,656. But that doesn’t mean that any landlord in Ewa Beach can charge that amount, she said.

The program conducts a study to see if a landlord is charging Section 8 tenants a reasonable rate based on similar units in the area with similar amenities and features. 

The median listing for a three-bedroom in the same ZIP code as Villages of Moa’e Ku — 96706 — is $3,400, according to Justin Tyndall, an assistant professor of economics with the University of Hawaii Manoa. 

“We have to make sure that property owners are not charging more to Section 8 tenants than they would for other tenants,” Broadous said.

Rental increases do occur every year, even for Section 8 voucher holders, and Broadous said she has seen higher increases recently as landlords try to make up for the years rent couldn’t be raised due to moratoriums enacted during the coronavirus pandemic. But, she said, rent increases are usually around 5% to 7% — not 130%. 

“This is a pretty unreasonable request,” she said, of the proposal to raise one tenant’s rent from $2,032 to $4,656. 

Landlords who house Section 8 tenants are required to get approval from the program before raising rents, she said. If the program does not approve the increase, then the landlord can either come back with a rent that is considered reasonable or the contract with Section 8 will be canceled, Broadous said.

The tenant would then need to either find a new rental that accepts their voucher, or release the voucher and choose to pay market rent — an option that isn’t possible for most people who qualify for Section 8, she said. 

Dallis Ontiveros, spokesman for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, which issues federal Section 8 vouchers, did not respond to questions about rent increases for its voucher holders at Villages of Moa’e Ku.

Tenants at the complex who have Section 8 vouchers and received notices of rental increases agreed to be interviewed and provided copies of their rent increase notices but declined to give their names because they feared retaliation from the housing development. 

Four tenants who answered their doors Wednesday night and who do not have Section 8 benefits said they also got notices of rent increases, but for around $100, which they said they expect every year. None reported near the same level of rent increases as some of the Section 8 voucher holders.

Broadous said any attempt to overcharge Section 8 tenants could be considered fraudulent, although she said she could not comment on the situation at Villages of Moa’e Ku due to tenant privacy and the fact that an investigation has not yet occurred.

She said the Section 8 voucher program is meant to help create more equity in communities, and officials take steps to make sure the program isn’t abused.

“This program is really great in the sense that it stabilizes communities, and it builds communities, and it allows lower-income families to be able to live in nicer areas,” she said. “It does a lot of really great things for the community. And so, when we hear about things like landlords trying to charge more to our participants, it’s really hard because we want to believe that everybody’s doing the right thing.”

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.

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