Several months after Hawaii received $863 million from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the CARES Act in April, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono rightly called for Gov. David Ige to provide more transparency in spending and questioned why a large chunk remained unspent, or even allocated for relief efforts.
Hirono stressed the need for clear information and to proceed with urgency, given the possibility that unspent money would have to be returned to the U.S. Treasury at year’s end. Shortly thereafter, Ige’s office issued an announcement that updated spending plans slated for economic, public health and community programs, and noted that Hawaii would be off the hook for returning unspent relief funds from this pot.
Under the state’s current plan, CRF money still on the table at deadline time will be funneled into Hawaii’s unemployment insurance trust fund. And while Ige pledged to use every CRF penny to provide a “crucial lifeline to our residents and businesses,” it now appears that thousands of cash-strapped residents may get the short end of the stick.
These include people seeking relief through a promised $100 million rent relief and housing assistance program launched in early September. But as of this week — with administrative costs reducing the total earmarked for assistance to $87.5 million — the program has disbursed only $35.4 million.
This slow-moving pace is unacceptable, given the high count of applications for the program through which tenants apply for grants to cover residential rents, with the state paying grant awards to landlords. Due to processing capacity limits, application intake was cut off when the program received more than 17,600; so far, according to the latest tally, just 5,320 households have secured assistance.
Unless Congress moves to push back the CRF’s spending deadline, many eligible renters could be left empty-handed as Ige’s latest emergency proclamation banning residential eviction expires on Dec. 31. In place for seven months now, the ban is serving as a temporary housing safety net. When the net snaps, Hawaii’s courts are expected to fill up with legal disputes about rent delinquency.
Speaking this week on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast, the governor pointed out that more staff has been hired to help unclog bottlenecks in the program’s application processing. While somewhat encouraging, more must be done to push out promised rent relief.
The need is pressing, given that there’s no chance of Hawaii soon returning to pre-coronavirus, single-digit unemployment rates.
Also on Hawaii’s CRF spending list, funding for devices and connectivity to support schools, and personal protective equipment and supplies for schools, hospitals and businesses must rate as high priorities. Amid the pandemic, all three designated sectors cannot fully function in the absence of well-stocked inventories.
The state’s fallback plan — depositing unspent relief money into Hawaii’s unemployment trust fund to help repay a $1 billion federal loan the state secured to pay unemployment benefits to residents sidelined by COVID-19 fallout — stands to benefit employers, who are required to pitch in to replenish the tapped-out trust fund.
This upshot might serve as consolation as the state sizes up businesses’ ability to pick up the loan repayment, but it would likely shortchange the CRF’s prioritized recipients: those who can, and should, be helped now.
In the remaining weeks before CARES Act spending wraps up, the state — along with its partners at county governments, nonprofits and business communities that have already stepped up to help get this money disbursed to those most in need — should move with a redoubled sense of urgency, as if there is no fallback. The clock is ticking.