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Hawaii attorneys and landlords brainstorm to keep tenants in homes

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 2009
                                Landlords for artists’ lofts in the Mendonca Building in Chinatown are working with housing attorneys to prevent their tenants and tenants of other rental units from being evicted.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 2009

    Landlords for artists’ lofts in the Mendonca Building in Chinatown are working with housing attorneys to prevent their tenants and tenants of other rental units from being evicted.

In June the Honolulu Board of Realtors reported that almost 40% of Realtors said they had tenants unable to pay their rent in June.

So it is crucial that tenants and landlords be informed of eviction moratoriums and relief funds available under the federal CARES Act, said Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Housing and Consumer Unit. It is also urgent, he added, that the parties respectfully communicate and negotiate agreements that allow tenants to stay in their homes.

O’Meara said he was relieved after Gov. David Ige announced in August he was extending the state’s COVID-19 moratorium against evictions for nonpayment of rent through the end of September, and after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control established an eviction moratorium through the end of the year.

Since April 17, when Ige’s order first took effect, O’Meara and other legal aid housing attorneys have been hard-pressed trying to help tenants who weren’t aware of the moratorium and/or were being harassed and forced out by their landlords in ways that circumvent formal eviction proceedings, he said.

“We’ve had a 25-30% rise in our landlord-tenant calls, by far the majority from tenants, since the economic shutdown in March,” O’Meara said.

In a July 23 survey of 100 attorneys in 38 states during the COVID crisis by the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco, 91% reported illegal evictions, 53% saw tenants being illegally locked out of their homes and 18% saw tenants facing intimidation and other eviction threats, even though 78% had local or state moratoriums in place at the time.

Attorneys can inform landlords of the moratoriums, negotiate on tenants’ behalf and file complaints to stop harassing behaviors such as physical threats, lockouts and turning off utilities, but “sometimes, unfortunately, people come to us too late, after having been forced out,” O’Meara said.

Landlords, too, can be unaware of the moratoriums: On Friday, Aug. 21, the day after Ige announced the moratorium extension, O’Meara was called by “a senior gentleman who wasn’t able to pay his rent; that afternoon his landlord had changed the locks and said he had to be out by Monday.”

Over the weekend, legal aid attorneys were able to reach the landlord, who said she was unaware of the moratorium, O’Meara said; the tenant was able to stay in his home.

Meanwhile, landlord JoDee Hunt says she informs her tenants of assistance programs.

“Because we are successfully helping them get some funding, the amount owing at the end of this (moratorium) will be minimized,” said Hunt, who with her husband, Ernie Hunt, owns commercial properties and artists’ lofts in Chinatown’s Mendonca Building, residential properties in McCully and Wahiawa, and short-term vacation rentals in Volcano, Hawaii island.

“We have helped all of our commercial tenants to get the small-business CARES Act relief,” Hunt said, “but they still need customers!”

While short-term vacation rentals are nonoperative, the Hunts received personal relief in the form of an economic injury disaster loan under the federal Small Business Administration.

For the rest, “we will just take one tenant at a time and work something out that we can live with,” Hunt said, “usually, two payments a month, or we’ll break up the debt into many months of payments.”

Out of their 60 rental properties, only two out of about 40 residential tenants have left since the pandemic began, Hunt said.

One tenant, who had applied for unemployment relief in March and finally received her first benefit check, “just handed me a check for $5,000,” which covered back rent, she added.

“We have two Wahiawa tenants who are paying their commercial rent for their business but have nothing left over for apartment rent. … This is a big problem and will increase as we go on, I think,” Hunt said.

O’Meara said he and his colleagues are apprehensive about what will happen once the moratoriums end and back rent comes due; in the NHLP survey, 85% of attorneys said they expect a surge in eviction cases.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Aug. 27 that the city will provide an additional $25 million for the city’s small-business grant program started in response to the COVID-19 crisis; small-business owners, including some landlords, can apply.

Caldwell also announced that approximately $22 million is still available in the city’s Household Hardship Relief Fund Program for families and individuals in need of assistance to pay rent, mortgage, utilities, child care and other emergency expenses.

Another $50 million is being made available through the Rent Relief and Housing Assistance Program of the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp., a state agency, O’Meara said.

RENTAL ASSISTANCE

>> Those seeking relief sources and application guidance should visit covidkokua.com, hihousinghelp.com and call 211 (Aloha United Way).

>> A comprehensive listing of resources for landlords and tenants losing income due to the pandemic can be found on the Honolulu Board of Realtors website at hicentral.com/covid-19.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Honolulu Board of Realtors and mischaracterized the results of the organization’s survey on tenants who were unable to pay rent.

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