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Editorial: Maintain safety net for renters

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Under Gov. David Ige’s continuing emergency proclamation on COVID-19, housing landlords are banned for now from evicting tenants over failure to pay rent or other charges such as utilities and taxes. Rent hikes also are prohibited, though unpaid rent will eventually come due.

A landlord failing to comply can be slapped with a misdemeanor, with maximum penalties of a year in jail and $5,000 fine. Amid widespread unemployment touched off by the pandemic, the moratorium is necessary — especially for the many tenants who had been living paycheck-to-paycheck in high-cost-of-living Hawaii long before the coronavirus outbreak.

The trouble is that with scant evidence of enforcement on the state’s part, the ban appears to be little more than a thin gesture. An ugly upshot: An increasing count of cases, according to legal advocates representing low-income communities, in which landlords — some desperate to pay their mortgages themselves — are turning to threats and harassment to force tenants out.

While advocates have sent apparent violators demand letters and weigh litigation, they also point out that the problem is slated to increase in the aftermath of the just-expired $600 federal boost to weekly state unemployment benefits. A state agency should be tasked with investigating non-compliance complaints and bringing some much-needed bite to enforcement.

The federal government’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, issued in March, includes eviction moratoriums for most people living in federally subsidized apartments, as well as homes covered by federally backed mortgages. And state and local lawmakers across the country also are rightly stepping in with assistance and proposals aimed at averting a flood of evictions — and homelessness.

In Hawaii, Ige has so far signed off on a $50 million spending plan for housing and rental assistance and related costs, bankrolled with CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money. That counts as a cautious move to address a growing problem in need of more forward-thinking policy steps.

At the county level, Honolulu is allocating $25 million to $50 million in CARES funding to an individual hardship program that provides up to $1,500 a month to pay household and child care expenses for up to six months. In the interest of all-around fairness, both the county and state should also consider residential landlord subsidy programs.

Included on a sensible list of proposals, presented to state lawmakers by a coalition representing dozens of community organizations, is one calling for a program through which state or CARES funds would cover up to 20% of monthly rent for tenants affected by COVID-19. The money would be available to landlords who agree to reduce rent by 20% and refrain from evictions for six months after the expiration of any eviction moratorium.

Another tactic on the list: a mandatory mediation process tailored for mutually agreeable resolution of landlord-tenant disputes. With the moratorium reducing ability to evict, such a policy would likely encourage landlords to hash-out solutions with tenants.

In the public housing sector, due to at least one dozen COVID-19 cases recently surfacing at Kuhio Park Terrace, eviction can now be a consequence for failing to comply with requirements such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Previously, violations resulted in fines for households. While drastic, the severe message of the two-warnings-and-you’re-out measure is needed at this time to underscore public health’s paramount importance.

Moving forward, state and local governments, in tandem with affected communities, must be attentive to mounting rental housing challenges — and continue to seek viable solutions.

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