The initial response to Hawaii’s new housing aid initiative should surprise nobody.
Only a week after the official launch, the website for the State Rent Relief &Housing Assistance Program (hihousinghelp.com) has had more than 80,000 hits and has drawn 6,000 applications for relief so far.
The needs of tenants, many of whom have lost all or part of their income due to COVID-19 lockdowns, have skyrocketed since the end of the first federal unemployment supplemental benefit in July. Due to an eviction moratorium, there are landlords who cannot find new tenants able to pay rent, income that is essential to many of them as well.
That is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: The economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is sure to linger well into 2021 and beyond, say various experts, and the financial pain suffered by Hawaii residents is likely to ripple outward. The key concern here is that there are other pots of money from the federal CARES Act that are already lagging in reaching the people they are meant to help.
The pressure to get the money out the door should resonate like a drumbeat throughout the state bureaucracy — with the top brass hammering the message down.
There is some encouraging news here. Catholic Charities was set up to handle the processing of applications in advance of the program’s start and so was able to process the first requests last week, said Denise Iseri-Matsubara.
The executive director of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., the state agency that is coordinating the expenditure of $100 million in federal funds allotted for the program, shared that information Monday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii webcast.
Iseri-Matsubara added that Aloha United Way, the other nonprofit enlisted to run the housing-aid program, is finishing its setup now, which should help accelerate the process.
James Koshiba, who heads the housing advocacy group Hui Aloha and sits on the House Select Committee on COVID-19, has been helping with this program’s plan. He added that applications so far amount to about $100,000 in aid. The money, up to $2,000 in rent payments per month for Oahu tenants and up to $1,500 monthly for neighbor islanders, goes directly to landlords to whom it is owed.
Gov. David Ige has released $50 million in federal funds for the first of two phases, targeting rent payments from August through December. The second phase, Iseri-Matsubara said, could be used for back payments owed since March as well, and for some mortgage relief.
The applications timetable for the second phase should be set as soon as possible. So many people in the islands have household budgets with razor-thin margins. Most cannot miss more than a paycheck or two before running into trouble, and many have not yet landed on the unemployment safety net.
Delays have been par for the course through the recovery process to this point, and that needs to change. For example, of the $387 million in CARES funding set aside for the City and County of Honolulu, only $72 million has gone out. That’s a lot of money to be spent by the federal deadline in December.
Transparency about the spending progress and plans would help. Some may be provided by the city’s new tracking tool (oneoahu.org/dashboard). And a broader collection of data is being compiled by the private business and nonprofit Hawai‘i COVID Collaborative, also online (covidpau.org).
“Data creates knowledge,” the collaborative states on its site. “Knowledge creates action. And collaborative action creates change.”
Hawaii residents must hope this is correct. There is much that needs changing for the better from now and through the anticipated months — even years — of pain that lie ahead.