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Overdue-rent cases are expected to clog Hawaii’s courts

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                                Stephen Levins, director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, urges landlords to participate in court-recommended mediation with tenants.


    Stephen Levins, director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, urges landlords to participate in court-recommended mediation with tenants.

Hawaii’s courts are expected to be filled with “thousands and thousands” of legal disputes between landlords and their tenants who are delinquent on rent once the current ban on evictions expires at the end of the year, the head of the state Office of Consumer Protection said Tuesday.

No one can be evicted for not paying rent due to the economic calamity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen Levins, executive director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, told the House Committee on Intrastate Commerce. But renters ultimately are obligated to make up for any missed payments, he said.

“You’re looking at thousands and thousands of cases” that could end up in court, Levins said.

“There’s a lot of emotion that is going to be involved here,” Levins said. “You’ve got landlords who are very upset that they haven’t received the rent, and you have tenants who are under a lot of financial stress because they don’t have any income.”

Levins’ prediction would add even more pressure on an island economy that faces an uncertain future once federal COVID-19-­related aid — and the programs it funds — is scheduled to run out at the end of the year. And there are no economic forecasts predicting that Hawaii’s economy will rebound to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

Levins encouraged landlords to participate in court-recommended mediation with their tenants as a way to receive at least partial payment on overdue rent.

“Realistically, it’s going to be a challenge if you’re trying to recoup rent from someone who doesn’t have the ability to pay it,” he said.

State Rep. Scot Matayo­shi, (D, Kaneohe-Mauna­wili-Kailua), an attorney, said the state Judiciary plans to spend an entire month to address the massive caseload of landlord-tenant disputes known as “summary possessions.”

“If you’ve got a whole calendar full of summary possessions for a month, that’s insane,” Matayoshi said.

With 80,000 jobs lost since the pandemic, about 20,000 rental households across the islands need financial assistance, said Philip Garboden, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“These are folks who are suffering severely increased rental burdens because of pandemic-associated job loss,” Garboden told the committee.

And through the end of the year, “we’re still looking at 14,000 renter households in Q4 that will need some form of rent assistance to stay afloat,” he said.

Some $9.8 million in aid already has been dispersed to help with rent, mortgages and homeowner association fees. And another $6.3 million has been approved for upcoming payments, said Janice Takahashi, chief planner for the state Department of Business and Economic Development — Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.

The program already has helped 2,166 households, and another 3,151 applications are being processed, Takahashi said.

The bulk of the money will be spent on Oahu, which is expected to use 78% of the funds, followed by Maui County (10%), Kauai (8%) and Hawaii island (3%), Takahashi said.

While there’s financial help for renters, Levins said his office has seen a dramatic change in daily inquiries about failure to pay rent.

His office used to average 15 to 20 calls per day before the pandemic and now receives about 50 per day — mostly from landlords.

“Landlords are concerned about receiving rent,” Levins said. “They’ve been … asking questions about their rights under the landlord-tenant code, rights under Hawaii law and also what the (eviction ban) proclamation means, what the proclamation does to limit their ability to try to get a tenant out of their unit.”

“Tenants are obviously under a lot of distress, but landlords are under distress, too,” Levins said.

State Rep. Dale Kobayashi (D, Manoa-Punahou-Moiliili) owns a 36-unit, walk-up apartment building with some tenants who are overdue on their rental payments.

“I’m not without skin in the game here,” Kobayashi said.

“Make no mistake, there is definitely going to be economic pain on both sides,” Kobayashi said. “But what is never discussed here in these forums is that the relevant degree of pain is completely different. Am I getting a lower rental income than I had in the past? Of course. But am I going to be living on the sidewalk next month? No. Am I going to be running out of food? No. … The question is, Do I cut his (renter’s) leg off, or do I cut my thumb off? … There is really no comparison between the pain that these people are encompassing and what some detriment landlords and myself do. The discussion has to morph to a degree of pain that people are going to have.”

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