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Hawai´i County Still Has Millions to Help Renters Avoid Eviction Come August

By Max Dible
July 27, 2021, 2:30 PM HST
* Updated July 27, 2:42 PM
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Hawai´i’s eviction moratorium due to lack of payment will end in less than two weeks, on Aug. 6, 2021, following more than 16 months in effect. The decision, announced by Gov. David Ige earlier this month, has left service providers fearing an epidemic of homelessness, as some 10,000 lease holders are believed to currently be at least one month behind on their rent.

Susan Kunz, administrator for the Hawai´i County Office of Housing and Community Development, has focused her department’s concern on one particular and crucial initiative in light of the pending housing crisis — making sure Big Island renters facing imminent eviction are aware that there are literally millions of dollars available in emergency rental assistance to keep roofs over their heads.

PC: Pixabay.

The federal government sent Hawai´i County $11 million in pandemic relief aid to address local issues of back rent and back utility payments. The county began distributing that money to qualified applicants on April 12, 2021. As of Friday, July 24, only $3 million had been disbursed.

While Kunz said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Big Island residents under threat of imminent eviction and potential homelessness due to lack of payment, she is all but certain that several in need of this free and crucial financial lifeline have yet to apply for it.

“We are finding that we are not getting the demand we thought we were going to get,” Kunz said. “The first way we’ll avoid eviction for (lack of) rent payments is by getting people to apply for this program.”

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There is no cap on the amount of back rent available to renters facing eviction. Any monetary total dating back to March of 2020 is available to square outstanding debts with landlords.

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The only qualifications necessary are that applicants be residents of Hawai´i County, are at least 18 years old, can prove the pandemic impacted their income and/or employment status, can prove they are behind on rent and/or utilities, and have a household income at, or below, 80% area median income (AMI).

The county has sub-contracted with six vendors to manage the emergency rental assistance application process. Together, they offer coverage to the entire island, meaning no matter where you live, the program is an option for you, as long as you meet the minimum qualifications listed above.

All necessary information is available in the scrollable PDF file below:

PDF courtesy of Hawaii County Department of Housing and Community Development.
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Back rent is paid directly from vendors to landlords. Back utilities are paid directly to utility companies. It takes an average of five days from the receipt of the application and supporting documentation for the contractor to make a decision and for payment to be sent out.

“We’ve got all of this money for rental assistance, but we’re not seeing the rush of people coming in to get it,” Kunz said. “It makes you think maybe there wasn’t as much of a need, but then you hear all this concern (over potential evictions), so there’s definitely a gap there.”

Mediation Now Mandated Prior to Eviction

Ten days remain before eviction processes will begin for the first 1,000-2,000 lessees in Hawai´i facing the prospect of removal from their domiciles due to lack of payment.

For those who do not apply for and/or receive confirmation of funds via Hawai´i County’s emergency rental assistance program, there is a second backstop layer of protection now built directly into the system. That last line of defense from homelessness is a mandatory mediation session prior to any evictions being allowed to proceed through the court system — a stipulation of Act 57, which was passed by the State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ige this year.

The new legislation fundamentally changed the landlord/tenant code in Hawai´i to both mandate and incentivize a free, state-sponsored mediation program. Some of the stipulations are as follows:

  • Renters have more time to seek assistance and to work out agreements to avoid eviction
  • Renters have a right to mediation
  • Initially, the courts can consider Summary Possession cases for those owing four months of back rent or more

“This is a significant change, and we need to make sure that everyone is getting the information about the changes,” Ige said. “Whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, you do need to reach out and get answers to your questions as soon as possible. Now is the time to educate yourselves on the new law.”

Under the stipulations of Act 57, when a landlord officially files to evict a tenant for nonpayment, the notice of eviction will be sent to the lessee and the relevant local mediation center simultaneously. The center will then reach out to the tenant to schedule mediation.

Each tenant MUST schedule that mediation session within 15 days. If the tenant fails to deliver the center a response during that timeframe, the landlord is free to move forward with the eviction process. If mediation is scheduled, then a 30-day clock begins before the landlord can initiate eviction proceedings.

It is possible a mediation session won’t be available within that 30 days. However, if one is scheduled by the tenant, officials said it is unlikely a court would allow eviction proceedings to begin until the mediation is held.

“As part of Act 57, when a landlord moves forward (with the eviction process), they have to provide the court with notice that they attempted, or engaged in, mediation,” said Tracey Wiltgen, executive director of The Mediation Center of the Pacific, Inc. “It is in the best interest of everyone to hold that mediation within that 30-day period, but a lot of it is going to depend on the availability of the tenant (as well as the availability of the landlord and a mediation session).”

Mediation can result in several outcomes. It can lead to a payment plan agreement, during which the lessee incrementally pays back all the rent money owed over a set period of time. It may also lead to an agreement to pay some lesser total, either in a lump sum or as part of a payment plan. Kunz said the first thing Big Island mediators are likely to inquire about is whether the tenant has applied for and/or is eligible for the county’s rental assistance program. She said she expects many people to pursue that remedy following their mediation sessions, as it could very well satisfy both landlord and tenant in several cases.

However individual sessions play out, it is important to note that mediation, while now a required process, is not part of the legal system. If an agreement that is acceptable to both sides can not be reached, then the eviction process will begin. Mediations do not apply to situations in which a tenant is being evicted for a reason other than lack of payment.

“Landlords and tenants craft their own agreements that work for them,” Wiltgen said. “We hope our residents take advantage of our services.”

Mediation sessions will be one-meeting occasions, scheduled for 90 minutes. However, if an agreement is close, those meeting times may be extended. Due to an expected backlog in demand for the sessions, there will be no second mediation.

During the first month of the program, only those renters behind four months or more on their rental agreements will be allowed to take part in mediation. After 60 days, renters three months behind will be eligible, and the process will continue that way on down the line.

Big Island Emergency Voucher Program Soon Available

A second backup program will soon be available to those Big Islanders who do not qualify for the county’s emergency rental assistance program, fail to apply for it, and/or don’t reach resolution via mediation and subsequently find themselves on the streets.

Kunz said Hawai´i County is about to kickoff an emergency voucher program, which is an extension of the Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8 that is already in place. The subsidy comes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The county is set to receive 110 vouchers, including approximately $1.9 million, to provide housing subsidies for people who have recently become homeless.

There is no waitlist for this program. However, prospective participants must be registered with one of the nonprofits that form the Community Alliance Partner Group. Those organizations will issue a referral for an individual to receive a voucher.

“If you did not get rental assistance and end up evicted, there will be an emergency housing voucher program,” Kunz said. “With vouchers, your rent payments extend to 30% of whatever your income is, and the subsidy will pay for the rest.”

Kunz warned that complications exist where the housing voucher program is concerned. Namely, there is a significant shortage of rental units available on the Big Island, which has been compounded by the booming real estate market amid the pandemic.

Service providers are required to work with tenants and will assist eligible applicants in finding a unit. Members of the Community Alliance Partner Group are as follows:

  • Catholic Charities
  • Going Home Hawaii
  • Governors Coordinator on Homelessness
  • Hawaii Affordable Properties
  • Hawaii Island HIV/AIDS Foundation
  • Hawaii Rise Foundation
  • HOPE Services Hawaii
  • Interfaith Communities in Action
  • Lori Ferrin
  • Neighborhood Place of Kona
  • Neighborhood Place of Puna
  • West Hawaii Community Health Ctr.
  • St. Michael the Archangel Parish
  • Child & Family Service
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • The Salvation Army – FIS
  • Sharon Hirota – County of HI
  • Hawaii Island Home for Recovery
  • CARE Hawaii
  • Akua Treatment Center
Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations.
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