Close to 100,000 Hawaii residents lost work this month, and for many the fear of losing their home has also arisen or may not be far off.
The scary prospect is already real for Sheena Daquioag, a housekeeper at the Sheraton Waikiki who hasn’t been scheduled to work since the end of February.
“We really don’t know how to pay for our rent in the coming months,” said the mother of three, who shares a rented house in Kalihi with a partner. “We’re just praying that this thing will end soon.”
For Daquioag and others, not being able to pay rent or a mortgage is a far graver concern than fleeting shortages of toilet paper and some food items in connection with the forced dislocation of economic activity in Hawaii, which includes a near-total shutdown of tourism.
Paying for housing is especially hard in Hawaii where residents spend more personal income on this basic need compared with all or nearly all other states.
The good news is that considerable help is available to renters and homeowners facing potential displacement.
Many lenders and some landlords have deferred mortgage and rent payments during the crisis driven by the spread of the new coronavirus.
In some cases, evictions and foreclosures cannot begin or continue.
The federal government is readying one-time checks of $1,200 for individual adults and $3,400 for a typical family of four expected to arrive in about three weeks. Congress also approved $600 weekly unemployment benefits for four months tacked onto the standard state unemployment benefit, which maxes out at $648 a week in Hawaii.
Homeowners with government-guaranteed mortgages who fall behind on their monthly payments because of the coronavirus pandemic can postpone their payments by up to a year, according U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
In new guidance for homeowners and renters released Sunday, Schatz also announced relief for some renters. Property owners are prohibited from filing for eviction or charging any fees for unpaid rent until July 26 to tenants who occupy properties with federally guaranteed loans or properties that participate in federal housing programs.
“Lots of Hawaii residents are struggling to make their mortgage or their rent, and these programs can help tens of thousands of people who need it,” said Schatz. He recommended that homeowners and tenants call their mortgage servicers, their landlords or a housing counselor to see whether they are eligible for either forbearance or anti-eviction protections.
More than 60% of all mortgages in Hawaii and across the country are backed by the federal government, according to Schatz’s announcement.
Homeowners in need of relief should reach out to their mortgage servicers as soon as possible or contact a HUD-approved housing counselor. The nearest housing counselor can be found at consumerfinance.gov/find-a-housing-counselor or by calling 800-569-4287.
Renters seeking information on whether they are covered by the moratorium should contact the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii or a HUD- approved housing counselor. You can find the nearest housing counselor by calling 800-569-4287.
Numerous local charitable organizations, meanwhile, are helping cover basic household needs, including paying for housing or paying for essentials like food to allow more personal finances to go to housing.
The biggest landlord serving the most vulnerable tenants in the state, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, is prepared to temporarily reduce rent to nothing for the poorest tenants and even pay for their utilities.
Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the state agency with about 6,270 homes, said a family of four earning $56,000 a year with no other assets or expense deductions could have their monthly rent dropped from $1,300 to between zero and $50 if they lose all income.
“In some instances we will even pay (a) utility allowance so that they can keep the utilities on,” he added.
HPHA also has suspended evictions for rent-related reasons.
At the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, beneficiaries who have mortgage loans with the agency or assigned to the agency have been allowed to postpone mortgage payments for six months, starting in April, with deferred obligations due by the loan’s maturity date.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission approved the deferral program Tuesday, and additional case-by-case deferrals beyond six months can be subject to commission approval.
The action affects more than 1,200 loans administered through DHHL.
In the private sector, lenders have announced a range of mortgage deferral programs.
For instance, First Hawaiian Bank is offering up to six months of deferred mortgage payments and a flexible partial-payment program.
“We are committed to helping our customers recover from the financial difficulties created by COVID-19 and want to get relief to them quickly,” Bob Harrison, the bank’s CEO, said in a statement.
Other local banks are offering mortgage forbearance with similar or different terms.
“This is an unprecedented situation, and by offering these financial assistance programs as quickly as possible, we hope it eases some of the financial stress and burden our customers may face,” Peter Ho, Bank of Hawaii’s CEO, said in a statement.
There is, however, some concern that distressed homeowners and renters could be in dire straits at the end of relatively short relief periods in cases where borrowers must make up all deferred obligations when a deferral period ends.
A Housing Matters report from Washington, D.C., nonprofit research organization Urban Institute raises the possibility of an “eviction tsunami” after the coronavirus crisis.
“A temporary hold on evictions allows rent arrears to add up — which puts renters in deeper crisis in the future while harming rental property owners today,” the report said.
Daquioag, the Waikiki housekeeper, said unemployment benefits and the coming federal cash aid will be a major help. But she worries that it won’t be enough.
“I don’t think we’re going to be surviving,” she said.
Daquioag said she is hopeful that government can help renters broadly, perhaps with a rent relief order.
In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige announced March 17 that as part of several measures to address negative impacts of COVID-19, he was looking into a halt of foreclosures and evictions for not paying rent.
Jodi Leong, Ige’s press secretary, said Friday that the governor is expecting more definitive information on the issue from the Attorney General’s Office in the next couple of days.
Star-Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.