Hawaii has been consigned to stay at home, or most residents have, for as much of each day as they can. It’s the tragedy of the pandemic shutdown that the economic fallout of business closures and stay-at-home orders could well push many people out of those homes.
The mission before government, residents and businesses of the islands: Do everything possible to prevent that from happening, if there is any hope of restoring much of what has been lost.
On Friday, Gov. David Ige activated four units of the Hawaii National Guard to help with various civil-support operations to support security efforts, search-and-rescue backup, and help with virus screening and other community mitigation efforts.
That was a threshold event in an unprecedented disaster. It signals that climbing out of this deepening chasm will require all hands on deck. Recovery will be a long-term endeavor.
For most people, this protracted struggle will be financial. Lost business activity has meant lost revenue for employers and, ultimately, layoffs and lost wages for many of those who work.
Considering how many families in Hawaii have a very thin margin of error in the household budget, and precious little in savings, the first missed paycheck means, in all likelihood, a missed housing payment as well.
Hawaii housing costs are especially high, but this is the same pain being felt by families across the country. Congress anticipated that and, after some false starts, managed to kick out an historically robust relief package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, now better known as the CARES Act.
The first element is direct payments of some $1,200 per adult. That will be a godsend to many families, who need time to come up with a way to keep the household intact. There is the expanded and enlarged unemployment insurance benefit that will provide a safety net beneath workers who previously had no such assist, and for an extended length of time.
But traffic jams on the phone and website connections to unemployment offices have become rampant, and swamped systems across the country surely mean delays in delivering benefits to many.
There are additional backstops, such as the paycheck protection program providing forgivable loans to businesses that retain or rehire employees. Even those, however, will take time to yield the intended support; applications began only on Friday.
So, what’s to be done about the first-of-the-month mortgage and rent payments owed?
While the substantial aid of the CARES Act is being disseminated, considerable cooperation will be needed from everyone: financial institutions, property owners paying off mortgages and renters needing to pay the landlords’ bills.
There is recognition of this issue at every governmental level, from Uncle Sam on down. Homeowners with mortgages backed by a range of federal programs are eligible for loan forbearance. That means mortgage payments can be postponed for up to one year without fees, penalties, or additional interest.
These are mortgages backed by the U.S. departments of agriculture, veterans affairs, and housing and urban development, programs such as Section 184a, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
Those who qualify for forbearance should contact mortgage servicing agencies quickly to seek it out and strongly consider passing on at least some of the relief to any tenants. There is also a foreclosure eviction moratorium in effect until May 17, 2020.
Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has compiled an online resource guide for those concerned about these housing payments (schatz.senate.gov/coronavirus/assistance-for-homeowners-and-renters). There are links to fact sheets on unemployment insurance, direct payments, tax relief and small business support, all of which ultimately provides needed relief.
At the state level, Ige’s emergency proclamations activate a section of the Hawaii Revised Statutes barring an eviction “except for a breach of a material term of a rental agreement or lease, or if the unit is unfit for occupancy.”
Rent is still payable, though, and it’s incumbent on the tenant facing financial loss to speak with the landlord immediately and see if forbearance or a partial payment plan can be negotiated.
There are more targeted actions being taken to offset the economic collapse. On March 24, the Hawaiian Homes Commission approved a six-month mortgage deferral plan for Native Hawaiian homesteaders, as an example of specific allowances being made.
And in the private sector, banks and lenders are offering various temporary allowances for deferment or forbearance on loans. Those with pending trouble on their housing payments have to reach out.
Rebuilding likely will be a halting process extending out for months or years, as individuals re-establish their financial security. Making this possible will require contribution and sacrifice from everyone, to avoid an economic disintegration that will take decades to reverse.