Tenant Advocates Raise Concerns Over Violation of Eviction Moratorium

August 4, 2020, 5:06 PM HST (Updated August 4, 2020, 5:06 PM)
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Families statewide continue to be under threat of losing their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite the governor’s moratorium on evictions.

On Tuesday, a group of advocates for Hawai‘i tenants held a press conference over Zoom to open the dialogue regarding such actions. Threatening or enforcing evictions right now is illegal. Their big message to landlords was “don’t do it.”

“There are many residents who can’t pay rent right now — it’s a hardship on landlords to be sure,” said Tom Helper, Director of Litigation for Lawyers for Equal Justice.

Helper said landlords should know it’s illegal to threaten, evict or lock people out of the properties they’re renting.

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Gov. David Ige placed a moratorium on evictions until Aug. 31, as thousands of Hawai‘i residents lost their jobs due to the pandemic. However, in June a Waipahu couple and they’re 9-year-old son were forced to leave their residence after repeated threats from the landlord.

Prior to eviction Helper, who represents the family, said the tenant was paying $800 of his $1200 rent because his hours were cut at work. Helper explained how the landlord sent the tenant text messages demanding he and his family move out.

Courtesy of Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice

“He pleaded with the landlord to stop the eviction, sending a text that said: ‘It’s not legal what ur doing to me and my family …. Plzz don’t do this to us,'” advocates explained. “The landlord responded by text: ‘If you do not want to pay rent YOU MUST MOVE OUT.'”

Not able to pay full rent, the tenant and his family moved out.

Helper said the landlord was in clear violation of the moratorium and responsible for potential damages for the eviction. Helper has reached out to the landlord in an effort to resolve the matter, however, the landlord has provided no response and that the next step will be to file a lawsuit in state court.

During the Zoom call, Dan O’Meara, Managing Attorney for the Housing and Consumer Unit of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i, said their office is receiving 25 or more calls a week from people across the state claiming they are being harassed and threatened with evictions, adding there’s a lot of nagging and bullying.

In Hawai‘i County, O’Meara said they’ve received several reports of illegal evictions and threats of eviction. In one particular case, a landlord renting out a residence on his property turned off the electric and water in an effort to force the tenants out.

“The law is clear: these evictions are illegal,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara said Legal Aid has sent several demand letters to landlords informing them of their illegal behavior. Once the landlords receive those, they understand.

“A lot of landlords just didn’t know and the behavior stopped,” he added.

The advocates say the landlords do have options. One of which is mediating with their tenants, or even helping their tenants access promised rental support funds made available through the state.

“Instead, we have been receiving too many reports of landlords immediately moving to the illegal option: evicting tenants and forcing people onto the street,” said Deja Ostrowski, attorney with the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawai‘i (MLPC).

Like the 14-day mandatory quarantine, MLPC Director Dina Shek said eviction moratorium should be enforced.

“Not creating houseless families should be just as important as going after quarantine violators,” Shek said over the Zoom call.

While complaints are coming from a wide spectrum of people, Helper said, Pacific Islanders seem to be the ones bearing the brunt of the problem.

Shek noted, “MLPC has seen many Micronesian clients who are ‘essential’ workers, paying rent or awaiting rent supports, and whose communities are severely impacted by COVID-19. They should be afforded all mediation and housing supports, not targeted for illegal evictions.”

Sylvia M. Hussey, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said with a disproportionate number of Native Hawaiians residing in homes that they rent, and with many families struggling to make ends meet even before this pandemic began, the eviction moratorium is the only thing standing in the way of a potential tidal wave of eviction actions and the ensuing mass homelessness of Native Hawaiians and others.

“This is a trying time for everyone, and so many have stepped up to the plate to find long-term solutions that will keep all of us—including both landlords and tenants, as well as those without homes—safe and secure,” Hussey said.

Tenant advocates are pushing for a longer moratorium and note that the majority of tenants are paying their rent in full or partially. The tenant advocates encouraged tenants who have been threatened with eviction to call the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i at 808-536-4302.

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