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Editorial: Soften impact of eviction notices

In April 2020, when Gov. David Ige imposed a moratorium prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for failing to pay rent and related charges, Hawaii’s unemployment rate of nearly 22% was among the nation’s highest — a head-spinning surge from pre-pandemic rates that had been among the lowest, hovering at 2%.

This spring, as economic recovery picked up speed, the unemployment rate dropped. Although Hawaii topped all other states this April, with 8.5%, it also saw the largest overall job gains, on a percentage basis. The encouraging trends signal that it’s time to set in motion a plan to finally lift the moratorium, which has served as a safeguard against a potential flood of evictions and spike in homelessness.

But even with the improving employment outlook and federal COVID-19 relief funds still flowing, many households continue to struggle with housing costs. In recent months, when Honolulu’s Rental and Utility Relief Program opened up for applications, thousands have poured in. Pulling the plug abruptly on the eviction ban could still unleash a fresh torrent landlord-tenant problems.

Given that the ban does not relieve tenants of obligation to pay rent, the Legislature last month passed House Bill 1376, which creates welcome opportunity to blunt clashes — and avoid a clogging of the state court system — by offering mediation opportunity to work out debt matters.

The bill sets up a graduated schedule for evictions that requires landlords to give tenants 15 days’ notice for terminating a rental agreement, and tenants may schedule an optional free mediation session, which the landlord must attend and comes with language interpreter services.

While many landlords may view this schedule as too drawn-out, working with a tenant to get back-rent paid will mean they can get money that would never be paid if a non-paying tenant is simply forced out.

One long-standing court program on Oahu offers some optimism that mediators can spark the communication and trust needed to produce agreements. In a recent interview, Tracey Wiltgen, The Mediation Center of the Pacific’s executive director, told Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Andrew Gomes that a 30-minute mediation session held prior to eviction cases resulted in 22% of tenants not being evicted.

Another bill provision would further regulate when landlords can file an eviction lawsuit, depending on back-rent owed. In cases of more than four months of past-due rent, a landlord could file as soon as one day after the moratorium expires — in early August, according to Ige’s latest COVID-19 emergency proclamation. The minimum waiting period grows to about five months if only one month of rent is overdue.

In written testimony supporting the measure, David W.H. Chee, a Honolulu attorney with decades of experience in landlord-tenant law, rightly pointed out that for landlords who have watched the moratorium strip away their incomes and ability to control losses, the bill “offers a path to normalcy,” allowing them to address tenants with the largest debts first.

Millions of renters across the U.S. are currently protected from eviction, thanks to a less-expansive moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is set to expire at the end of this month. Hawaii is among a handful of states poised to continue bans.

New York’s is extended until September in cases of COVID-related hardship. In Oregon, tenants cannot be booted for rent owed between April 2020 and June 2021, and they have until February to make up payments. Other states plan to delay eviction proceedings after their bans lift.

Here, in Hawaii, Ige should sign off on HB 1376 as a much-needed step to helping renters remain in their homes and returning some control to landlords.

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