Legal advocates are stepping up efforts against landlords who violate Hawaii’s moratorium on residential renter evictions over unpaid bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several organizations trying to raise awareness of what they describe as a growing problem of illegal eviction threats said on Tuesday that they are gearing up to take more legal action against landlords, and that government agencies should do more to enforce the moratorium established by Gov. David Ige in April.
Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for the housing and consumer unit of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, said the nonprofit public- interest law firm is getting more than 25 calls a week from renters alleging illegal harassment and eviction threats by landlords.
“There’s a lot of nagging and bullying,” he said.
Such coercion, according to O’Meara, has included shutting off utilities, lockouts and repeated demands for tenants to leave.
The statewide issue, according to organizations helping tenants, is affecting a greater number of lower- income households and Pacific Islanders, and O’Meara expects the problem is going to increase because a federal boost to state unemployment benefits expired last month.
Under Ige’s continuing emergency proclamation, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants over failure to pay rent or other charges that include utilities, late fees and taxes. Raising the rent also is prohibited, though unpaid rent is not forgiven.
Violating the order can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, with penalties of up to a year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
Tom Helper, litigation director at Lawyers for Equal Justice, has a message for landlords who may be tempted to violate the moratorium: Don’t do it.
“Landlords should know that it is illegal to evict people, it’s illegal to threaten eviction, it’s illegal to lock tenants out of their properties,” he said. “And just as importantly, there are significant legal consequences for doing that, including damages. There are lawyers who are willing to represent these folks in cases if people violate the eviction moratorium.”
One case Lawyers for Equal Justice is pursuing is against a Waipahu landlord who Helper said owns at least 20 apartments and took action against one family who could pay only $800 of the monthly $1,200 rent.
The family, a couple with a 9-year-old son, moved out in June to live with relatives after repeated demands from the landlord that included this landlord-tenant text exchange provided by Lawyers for Equal Justice:
“Please move out this. weekend.”
“It’s not legal what ur doing to me and my family…….Plzz don’t do this to us ……”
“If you do not want to move out YOU MUST PAY RENT.”
The tenant did not want to be named out of concern it would cause him more housing troubles, but said he couldn’t pay rent because his work hours at a warehousing job were cut.
“I felt really mad,” he said. “I was trying my best to give (my landlord) what I can.”
Helper said Lawyers for Equal Justice sent a legal demand letter to the landlord in pursuit of getting the tenant’s apartment back and perhaps damages but has not received a response. Litigation is also possible, he added.
O’Meara said Legal Aid has sent several demand letters to landlords recently, and that some resolve the situation at that point.
Dina Shek, legal director for the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said there’s a lack of enforcement on illegal eviction actions from government authorities.
“I’m particularly concerned that the state needs to do a much better job of enforcing and prosecuting violations of the eviction moratorium,” she said, noting that arrests of tourists violating a travel quarantine are publicized unlike landlords making eviction threats. “We’ve seen too many people being illegally evicted by landlords, even when they are caught up with rent or awaiting long-delayed unemployment benefits, and these are clear violations of the governor’s emergency orders.”
Shek encouraged tenants facing illegal eviction actions to contact the state Office of Consumer Protection, Legal Aid and even the Honolulu Police Department.
Deja Ostrowski, a Medical- Legal Partnership attorney, encouraged landlords to work with tenants to get through the economic crisis, perhaps even helping tenants obtain financial aid that could go toward rent.
“Landlord cooperation is really what we need,” she said.
Helper, with Lawyers for Equal Justice, also encouraged cooperation and acknowledged that landlords face economic hardships as well.
“What we strongly encourage landlords to do is to sit down with your tenants and work out payment plans,” he said. “You’re much better off financially doing that than violating the law.”