Column: Blaming evictions on tenants misses the bigger picture
When it comes to eviction cases filed in Hawaii last year, nearly half of them ended in default judgment for the landlord.
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When it comes to eviction cases filed in Hawaii last year, nearly half of them ended in default judgment for the landlord. This means that in hundreds of cases, eviction occurred automatically when the tenant failed to appear in landlord-tenant court. Regardless of whether that outcome was the right one, default judgments are problematic. The American justice system is premised on the idea that every individual is guaranteed a fair trial. It is deeply concerning that in nearly 50 percent of eviction cases, there is not even a hearing.
The sky-high default rate is partially attributable to the fact that the summons form issued to tenants is all but indecipherable, as noted in a new report on Hawaii evictions, by Lawyers for Equal Justice (“Tenants at disadvantage in eviction cases, study finds,” Star-Advertiser, Dec. 9). For example, Honolulu tenants are told that they must appear in court five business days after the “date of service” of the summons. However, the date stamped on the summons is often different than the date it was officially “served.” The result is an extremely confusing calculation that results in many tenants missing their court dates and immediately losing their homes. The summons process need not be so convoluted. It could be fixed.
That so many cases are decided by default is particularly disturbing since many tenants have valid defenses to eviction. It is true, of course, that some tenants simply fall behind on their rent and do not have a legal defense. But lost in the chorus of “They didn’t pay their rent!” is the basic fact that lease agreements, like other contracts, are two-way streets: Just as tenants have obligations to landlords, landlords have obligations to tenants. When they fail to fulfill those obligations, landlords have no more right to throw a tenant out on the street than tenants do to remain without paying rent.
Sit outside Courtroom 10A at the Alakea Street courthouse on an average morning and you’ll probably hear disturbing stories. A tenant with an infant daughter who notified his landlord about raw sewage bubbling up through his shower was summarily served with an eviction notice because he “complained too much.” An elderly retired police officer was facing eviction for late rent even though his disabled wife had fallen seriously ill due to noxious substances that spilled into their apartment when one of their landlord’s construction projects went awry.
In that latter case — highlighted in the Star-Advertiser’s excellent coverage by Rob Perez — the retired police officer withheld his rent as a last resort after other attempted remedies had failed. After multiple months’ worth of requests for repairs and health code inspections went ignored, he did the only thing he could think of to get his absentee landlord’s attention: stop paying the rent. Because Hawaii’s Landlord-Tenant Code does not authorize the withholding of rent under any circumstances, his landlord immediately tried to put him out.
That chain of events points to a fundamental imbalance in our landlord-tenant laws. Landlords dealing with delinquent renters have a clear remedy: the eviction process, designed to return rental properties to landlords as quickly as possible. The vast majority of eviction cases are resolved in favor of the landlord in a matter of weeks.
Tenants have no equivalent remedy or process. It is unequivocally the landlord’s responsibility to maintain the rental unit in a sanitary, habitable condition. However, short of filing a complaint with government agencies that provide no guarantee of timely resolution, tenants have no way to hold landlords accountable. Simply finding another place to live is rarely an option given the scarcity of affordable housing.
As the law currently stands, it caters to the needs of landlords while offering no recourse to tenants seeking fairness. If the public is truly concerned about everybody holding up their side of the bargain, that must change. Justice demands nothing less.
Isaiah Feldman-Schwartz is a legal analyst at the nonprofit Lawyers for Equal Justice and co-author of the report, “Evicted in Hawaii.”