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Dan O’Meara: The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii lawyer works to help tenants and their landlords survive the COVID-19 shutdown

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Dan O’Meara, Honolulu Consumer & Housing Managing Attorney.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Dan O’Meara, Honolulu Consumer & Housing Managing Attorney.

What’s the latest on state and federal eviction protection due to COVID-19 upheaval?

Currently, the state eviction moratorium, stopping evictions for nonpayment of rent, expires on Sept. 30. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) ordered an eviction moratorium on all eviction for nonpayment of rent until Dec. 31. There is at least one court case challenging the CDC moratorium in Georgia, but a final decision by the end of the year, impacting Hawaii, is unlikely. …

Also, there’s a misconception that a landlord can send a regular 45-day notice to terminate a month-to-month tenancy after the moratorium ends. … Almost all 45-day notices for month-to-month tenants are prohibited under the governor’s emergency proclamations separate from the moratorium. In addition, there is a prohibition against rent increases through the proclamations.

Is a flood of evictions expected at some point? If so, what can, and should, be done today to ease that hurt?

It’s hard to predict how much the normal number of eviction cases will increase due to the pandemic. Some cities have seen an increase of at least 40%, which would mean Hawaii could be looking at over 2,300 statewide evictions starting in January, or about one year’s worth of eviction cases all at once.

This illustrates the need for landlords and tenants to use the state and county rental assistance programs currently available. The courts continue to work on different scenarios to deal with the volume, including remote access to the courts, mediation programs, more time to respond to seek rental assistance, and providing information to tenants on available resources.

Thoughts on the rental assistance programs?

UHERO (University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization) has estimated that about $100 million could be enough to cover rents from April through December, so it’s extremely important for tenants to seek the help. Statewide over $130 million has been allocated for housing and other assistance for those who had income reductions due to COVID. Legal Aid has an online summary of the assistance programs, updated as often as possible.

Tips for tenants seeking assistance:

>> Let your landlord know you are seeking assistance so the landlord can provide necessary information to receive payments.

>> For each program, gather required paperwork as soon as possible. Depending on your circumstances, some paperwork may be waived. Still, hang on to bills (even if not paid) and keep notices you receive — they may be helpful.

>> You can get assistance from more than one program if the limits of one are too low to fully help you.

Anything in the works that helps landlords when residential tenants cannot/do not pay rent for months on end?

The eviction moratorium is extremely difficult for landlords. The emphasis on the available CARES funds is to pay a tenant’s rent from one of the state or county rental assistance programs. It’s important to note that the rental assistance payments are made directly to the landlord.

The state program will also eventually include back rent. As frustrating as it is for a landlord who is not receiving rent, working with a tenant to get back rent and current rent paid will mean the landlord can get money they would never otherwise be paid if they simply force a nonpaying tenant out.

The public policy and philosophy, based on the state and CDC moratoriums, is to preserve housing, to address a public health risk, and to avoid a housing and homeless crisis. If a landlord is not paid rent, it is absolutely a financial hardship, but the landlord will likely still have a place to live; if a tenant cannot pay rent, it not only represents a financial hardship, but the tenant will not have a home.

As Hawaii’s economy reopens, what can be done to improve long-term stability for renters?

Legal Aid monitors rent in some of our housing programs. We already see some rent deals in the market — free rent for a month or more, some lower rent rates, and lower security deposits.

Once evictions take place, we expect some downward pressure on rent landlords will be able to charge. We expect more people to be living with family and friends, and we expect some people to leave the state who relied on the tourist industry to pay their rent.

Very few tenants are represented in court. Legal Aid is about the only law firm that regularly represents tenants — increased education and advocacy for tenants so they understand their rights will help balance the rights and obligations of both landlords and tenants. As a nonprofit law firm, we rely on our community’s generosity and partnerships to keep us going, especially right now when our services, outreach efforts and advocacy are all so critical. There’s information on ways to support on our website, www.legalaidhawaii.org.

THE BIO FILE

>> Title: Managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Housing and Consumer Unit

>> Professional history: Wanted to be an environmental lawyer, but when I graduated, nobody was hiring lawyers to protect the environment. Went to work with a private law firm doing financial transactions and acquisitions. While representing a client who was selling a chocolate company, I ended up buying and operating a chocolate company. After selling, I got involved in real estate and eventually transitioned back to representing people in the foreclosure crisis. Came to Hawaii in 2013 with a foreclosure defense firm and found Legal Aid, which is probably where I should have been the whole time.

>> Education: Ohio State University, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in natural resources; and JD from University of Colorado, Boulder.

>> Family: Daughter Sam, who just got married in July

>> One more thing: After five-plus years of regular hot yoga practice, going without has been tough. The yoga studio was not able to survive, just one of many businesses crushed by the pandemic. But I have come to appreciate the ocean much more. And I miss the monthly friendly poker game with the gang.

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