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New policy could reduce high cost of evictions

LIHU‘E — Lawmakers are hoping that a new bill will help reduce evictions and assist tenants struggling to make rent payments.

House Bill 1439 would reinstate policies under a COVID-era pilot program called Act 57, which required landlords to go through a third-party mediation session before filing to evict a tenant. It would also provide up to $5,000 in emergency rent relief funding through the Hawai‘i Public Housing Authority.

“This (bill) is actually one of my top priorities,” said Maui state Rep. Troy N. Hashimoto (D-District 10), the bill’s primary author, in an interview with The Garden Island on March 15.

Hashimoto hopes that HB 1439 will continue “the success of Act 57,” which was implemented from August 2021 to August 2022, after the state’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired.

He said Act 57 was helpful in reducing the number of evictions in the state and showed that “mediation is critical between landlords and tenants.” Hashimoto also noted that rental relief payments from the federal government will likely run out this fall, and HB 1439 would allow residents facing eviction “one last shot” to recover as housing costs continue to increase.

“Evictions are still an issue because … people weren’t able to work because of the pandemic. But now it’s really, it’s just a lot of people are facing evictions because it’s just rents are rising faster than the pace of people’s pay is increasing,” he said.

Just prior to Hashimoto’s interview, the Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 393, passed out of the Housing Committee.

“We inserted the language of HB 1439 into a similar Senate bill. So at least it mirrors both sides. So at least it’s all in play,” said Hashimoto, calling HB 1439 “the vehicle” for the proposed policy.

According to Hashimoto, the policy will most likely go into effect on July 1, with its full implementation occurring sometime in the fall. However, he noted that HB 1439 has only been proposed as a temporary program and that it would likely be repealed in June 2025.

“I think this is a really good interim program that is really needed,” said Hashimoto, explaining that the Legislature is still working on long-term eviction policies. “What we really need to figure out from there is, where do we want to go on a permanent basis?”

He hoped that mediation would continue to be a prerequisite for any type of eviction filing, and referred to a recent report from the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law &Economic Justice, which showed that mandatory tenant-landlord mediation sessions were effective in reducing the number of evictions throughout the state.

According to the March 2023 report, Keeping Hawai‘i Housed, a total of 4,078 eviction cases were opened between August 2021 and August 2022 under Act 57. Mediated cases had an 85 percent success rate, with 1,415 out of 1,660 cases reaching agreements through mediation.

On Kaua‘i, there was a 100 percent success rate — 13 out of a total number of 43 eviction cases in the county were mediated, and all 13 cases were able to reach agreements between the landlord and tenant.

“We found (mediation) to be highly effective for reaching the sort of rental agreements, or rent payment plan agreements, to keep people housed,” said Will White, the report’s lead author and the director of the Hawai‘i Budget &Policy Center.

He claimed that mediation sessions help with power imbalances between tenants and landlords, as tenants often don’t have the financial ability to hire lawyers to help with legal battles.

“We think that the state should look at ways to make that kind of intervention permanent,” he said of the free 1.5- to 2-hour mediation sessions implemented through Act 57.

White also hopes the report will help incorporate stronger protections into the state’s landlord-tenant code by implementing a just cause eviction law.

He explained that “there’s a pretty significant loophole” in the landlord-tenant code that allows tenants to be removed from their homes “without cause, for no reason whatsoever,” as long as the landlord provides at least 45 days of notice for the tenant to vacate the property.

“If we were to implement a just cause eviction law that would reform that 45-day rule, we think that could create some stronger protections for renters and just create a little more stability,” he said.

As of Jan. 25, The Emergency Relief Act has distributed a total of $265 million in rental relief funds in Hawai‘i, according to the Keeping Hawai‘i Housed report. A total of $19 million went to Kaua‘i, $190 million went to O‘ahu, $32 million went to Maui, and $24 million went to Hawai‘i Island.

But White pointed to other high costs associated with evictions, stating it’s more effective for the state and federal government to offer assistance to individuals and families struggling to make rent payments.

“We can either deal with this intervention right now by providing emergency rental relief and keeping that person housed, or we could run the risk of that person falling into homelessness, which then would create a lot of other downstream costs that we would have to pay for down the road that are going to be far more expensive,” said White.

Major public costs associated with evictions total over $30 million per year, according to the report. Of that total, an estimated $14 million goes to emergency shelters, $13.5 million goes to medical care, and $2.5 million goes to foster care and juvenile detention.

“Which is better? To deal with this cost now, when it’s cheaper and more effective?” asked White, “or to deal with it later down the road when it’s far more expensive and far more detrimental to the individual?”

White, who collaborated with Hashimoto on HB 1439, was hopeful about the bill crossing over to the Senate and was encouraged the Legislature had called homelessness and housing a top priority this year.

“Hopefully this (bill) will benefit from the Legislature’s desire to really want to make a difference on affordable housing and reducing homelessness,” he said.


Emma Grunwald, reporter, can be reached 808-245-0441 or
Source: The Garden Island

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