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Evictions not yet spiking in Hawaii despite moratorium’s end

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 2020
                                <strong>“The federal moratorium was in place until last week and nobody had any idea what was going on, so many landlords were probably taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.”</strong>
                                <strong>Phil Garboden</strong>
                                <em>University of Hawaii professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning</em>

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 2020

    “The federal moratorium was in place until last week and nobody had any idea what was going on, so many landlords were probably taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.”

    Phil Garboden

    University of Hawaii professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning

It’s been nearly two weeks since a federal eviction moratorium protecting renters was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the ruling doesn’t appear to have triggered a wave of eviction notices in Hawaii — yet.

In April 2020, Gov. David Ige instituted a statewide eviction moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hawaii’s resulting economic shutdown, which left many residents without jobs. The moratorium was extended, with Ige later announcing it would end Aug. 6.

Renters were still protected, however, because on Aug. 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a federal eviction moratorium that was supposed to end Oct. 6 — until the Supreme Court ruling on Aug. 26.

Since then, however, there doesn’t seem to have been a rush of evictions in Hawaii.

“Interestingly, we have not been flooded with cases as we have anticipated,” said Tracey Wiltgen, executive director of the Mediation Center of the Pacific, a nonprofit that provides mediation services for landlord-tenant disputes.

“We expected it last week when they announced the CDC (moratorium) ended. We expected it this week and we haven’t seen it. … Maybe we’re just not going to get a huge number,” she said.

Wiltgen is still trying to find an explanation for why there hasn’t been a surge of evictions but said there could be a variety of reasons. Landlords and tenants could be working things out among themselves, she said, but it could also be that many renters have returned to work, sought out rental assistance or simply moved out on their own volition.

Also, the overlapping timelines of the state and federal moratoriums led to confusion, so landlords possibly were hesitant to pursue any evictions.

“The federal moratorium was in place until last week and nobody had any idea what was going on, so many landlords were probably taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” said Phil Garboden, a professor in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning who focuses on housing issues, in an email.

Another reason could be that the state Legislature this year passed Act 57, designed to slow the eviction process and promote mediation between landlords and tenants.

The new law does this primarily through temporary amendments to the state’s residential landlord-­tenant code, three of which do most of the heavy lifting, according to Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Housing and Consumer Unit.

The first extends the notice of eviction from five to 15 days and requires that information in the notice be passed on to a mediation center that handles landlord-tenant disputes. The second requires landlords to participate in mediation, if scheduled by a tenant, before going to court and proceeding with the eviction process.

Finally, evictions are phased by how far behind tenants are on their rent, with those owing the most the first to face possible action.

Specifically, Act 57 states that through the first and 30th day after the end of the state moratorium, which was Aug. 6, landlords may go to court to evict tenants who owe at least four months’ rent. During the two-month period that follows, it’s tenants who are behind on three months’ rent, and for the two months after that, those who still owe two months’ rent.

During the final phase, landlords may take to court any tenant who owes at least a month’s rent.

While some evictions were avoided altogether through mediation or changes in individual circumstances, some may have just simply been delayed.

O’Meara, who’s noticed a slight uptick in eviction cases recently, said it’s not clear if a rush of evictions will come as many have feared, but the expectation is that the numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels over the next few weeks and probably exceed them.

“It’s either the calm before the storm or the storm’s not gonna happen. Everybody’s preparing for a hurricane and hoping it avoids us because of the rental assistance, but we don’t know for sure,” O’Meara said, later adding: “We’re not really seeing the big increases, and if it’s happening, it’ll start happening in the next two or three weeks.”

He reported that, based on court filings, the eviction rate in Hawaii dropped to 37% of what it was prior to the pandemic, and on Oahu, 28%. There were 204 statewide and 147 Oahu eviction cases per month before COVID-19 hit, and just 76 and 42, respectively, over the course of the outbreak.

It’s not clear exactly how many people in Hawaii are currently struggling to pay rent. Garboden said only a “highly imprecise” set of data, which tracks the percentage of households that are late on rent every two weeks, exists to make those estimates.

But based on his interpretation of that data, Garboden said that about 10% to 14%, or about 17,000 to 24,000 households, are late on their rent each month. Those numbers decline to about 6% to 9%, or 10,000 to 13,000 households, for periods when the two weeks land at the end of the month. He described the latter group as struggling “substantially” with rent.

“It’s undeniably true that a large number of renters are struggling to make rent and hopefully the mediation process can connect them to rent assistance,” Garboden said.

The pandemic has put a strain on both landlords and tenants, and ideas vary about what should be done going forward.

Groups like the Honolulu Tenants Union and AF3IRM Hawaii, a feminist activist organization led by women renters, on Friday demanded that Ige reinstate Hawaii’s eviction moratorium.

“Mediation is meaningless to a single mom facing eviction from a bad faith landlord. Mediation only delays the inevitable,” said Alexandra Balgos, a coordinator of AF3IRM, in a statement. “If Governor Ige is serious about homelessness and women’s safety, he must take preventative action immediately.”

Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for Ige, said in an email “there are no plans to reinstate the eviction moratorium at this point.”

“Gov. Ige is moving forward with implementation of the law passed by the Legislature, which includes the new mediation requirements. He is encouraging renters to apply for emergency rental assistance from the counties and indicated the counties still have funds to award,” Leong said.

Since December, Hawaii has received $166 million from the American Rescue Plan for rent and utility assistance, and $200 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act for the Emergency Rental Assistance program.

While Legal Aid assists renters, O’Meara said the end of the eviction moratorium was inevitable and renters still have tools, specifically Act 57, to better deal with possible evictions.

“It wouldn’t bother me if (the moratorium) was back, because that’s just more chances for tenants to stay housed, but I also understand that at some point it was going to end anyway,” he said. “It’s not really different from anywhere else in the country — it’s happening everywhere. Hawaii has at least this legislation.”

O’Meara said about half of the tenants who are taken to court for not paying rent never show up and automatically lose their housing, so it’s up to them to take advantage of the new law that gives them more time and more opportunities to avoid eviction.

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