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Editorial: Choose mediation for rent disputes

An emergency proclamation prompted by COVID-19’s public health threat and issued by Gov. David Ige in April established a ban on residential eviction, which is now slated to expire Nov. 30. For cash-strapped renters, the moratorium can serve as a window to stabilize household budgets upended by coronavirus-related setbacks.

Programs have been set up to distribute federal rent relief funds into December. But due to slow-moving processing of applications and other snags, securing even a small slice of assistance is not a sure bet for eligible households.

That’s why tenants and landlords should be working as partners now to actively navigate opportunities, rather than procrastinating or refusing to mediate conflicts. Such cooperation would be a clear advantage as a rental market crisis looms.

At a briefing held last week by the state House Committee on Intrastate Commerce, Stephen Levins, executive director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, said when the eviction ban is lifted, Hawaii’s courts are expected to fill up with legal disputes about rent delinquency.

“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 said. To avoid emotionally charged showdowns, he rightly advises landlords to participate in court-recommended mediation with tenants as a way to potentially receive at least partial payment on overdue rent.

During the briefing, state Rep. Dale Kobayashi, who owns a walk-up apartment building, made the humane point that “relative degree of pain” should be weighed in mediation. In most cases, a landlord not paid rent suffers a financial hardship yet still has a place to live, but a tenant who cannot pay rent is at risk of becoming homeless.

Given Hawaii’s highest-in-the nation unemployment rate — slightly more than 15% in September, due largely to the state’s stalled tourism industry — strong demand for rental assistance persists. It’s frustrating that the state’s largest push to date to help meet demand is falling short.

With $87.5 million to give out by the end of year, the state Rent Relief &Housing Assistance Program, underwritten by federal Corona­virus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, had disbursed only $12.3 million as of Wednesday.

Also concerning: Due to the volume of applications outstripping processing capacity, the program has so far limited applications to about 20,000. And according to the latest midweek tally, just slightly more than 2,750 households had secured assistance. Any rent relief money left on the table at year’s end could be transferred into the state’s unemployment fund — but it really ought to be used as robustly as possible now, as intended, for housing.

Another rent relief opportunity came last week when the Hawaii Public Housing Authority opened its Section 8 housing vouchers wait-list, thanks to an extra $2 million in federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.

The wait-list is expected to attract 20,000 applications from Oahu low-income families, even though allotted funding over the next couple of months is expected to help just 750 households — a disparity that reveals the depth of need. Still, landlords should welcome the reliability of the city-managed Section 8 program, through which participants typically apply 30% to 40% of monthly income to rent, with federal funds covering the balance.

Moving forward, in anticipation of the state’s eviction moratorium ending with the economy still hobbled, state lawmakers and others should consider piecing together incentives that encourage and shore up mediation. That alternative is far preferable to courtroom showdowns, which could result in thousands of painful evictions and a spike in homelessness.

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