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Editorial: Renters need more help with housing

Among the directives in Gov. David Ige’s latest COVID-19 emergency proclamation, issued last week, is one that extends a prohibition on evictions for non-payment of rent until Oct. 31. For many residential renters, the extension serves as a much-needed window to stabilize household budgets upended by coronavirus-related setbacks.

Thousands upon thousands of applications for financial assistance have poured into the $100 million State Rent Relief &Housing Assistance Program (hihousinghelp.com), which started weeks ago. Under the program’s first phase, which targets August-through- December rent payments, assistance could go as high as $2,000 per month on Oahu and $1,500 per month on the neighbor islands.

The just-launched second phase of the program, underwritten by federal Corona­virus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, further distributes aid for back payments owed since March, and provides some mortgage relief. Given that this effort can help cash-strapped tenants avoid a possible slide into homelessness as well as keep landlords solvent, the state should consider allocating more funding and resources, such as financial counseling.

While the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) has estimated that a state relief package totaling about $100 million could be enough as a stopgap for rents due through December, tenants and landlords must work together to seize opportunities through this program before it expires at the end of the year.

In June, the Honolulu Board of Realtors reported that almost 40% of its members who manage rental properties reported tenants were unable to pay rent that month because of the pandemic. So, it’s not surprising that cases of landlord harassment, such as tenants being illegally locked out of their homes, and illegal evictions have persisted for months. But so, too, have cases in which tenants have failed to pay rent or actively seek assistance.

It benefits all involved to opt for plain-spoken cooperation. The state program is structured to balance competing interests: while emphasis is on the available CARES funds to pay a tenant’s rent, the allotted rental assistance payments are made directly to the landlord.

Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Housing and Consumer Unit, has rightly pointed out: “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.”

While there are valid fears that unemployment rates — such as one from a week in mid-August in which Hawaii had the nation’s highest “insured unemployment rate,” 20% — could result in a homelessness spike, it appears that, for now, safety-net measures are helping to hold together vulnerable households.

And for the homeless, the city is making strides with its Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage (POST) program at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park, which offers shelter in tents, COVID-19 testing and self-quarantine. It’s encouraging that of roughly 500 individuals served since April, about half have moved on to longer-term shelter programs.

The POST program, too, is bankrolled with CARES Act funding, an estimated $2.5 million. It’s still unclear whether Congress will deliver another round of federal relief funding to cities and states; what is clear is that Hawaii cannot afford another round of shutting down much of its economy, both kamaaina- and tourism-focused sectors.

About 42% of Hawaii residents rent their homes, and a large portion of that group was living paycheck-to-paycheck even before COVID-19 surfaced here. Moving forward, the state must strive to balance public health restrictions with an acceleration of economic recovery.

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