Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, County Council urge suspension of evictions

The Hawaii County Council on Wednesday passed a pair of last-minute resolutions urging Gov. David Ige to suspend evictions statewide for residents and small business owners alike.

The two resolutions were not on the agenda for Wednesday’s council meeting.

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Instead, the measures were introduced the day before the meeting — a practice that would ordinarily be prohibited by the state’s “Sunshine Law,” which requires that the public be given prior notice about certain government proceedings. But the Sunshine Law was temporarily suspended by Ige in an emergency proclamation he signed in March to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder apologized to his fellow council members for introducing his resolution in such a fashion, but added that the issue is urgent enough to require immediate action.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s resolution, 574-20, urges the governor to impose a temporary moratorium on evictions for small businesses until at least April 30.

“They’re mandated to close, but they’re still getting billed,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said.

The state last week published a series of guidelines for renters informing them of their rights under Ige’s proclamation.

According to those guidelines, because court functions are significantly limited at present, evictions for reasons other than material breaches of the lease are not currently permitted; however, they also inform renters that they are still legally required to pay rent and that landlords can initiate legal proceedings for eviction due to nonpayment after April 30.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said 99.3% of businesses statewide are small businesses that collectively employ 66.2% of the state’s private workforce.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, told the Tribune-Herald Wednesday that he supports the measure, saying that state-provided lease relief is vital for saving small businesses from substantial economic fallout. Small businesses are a legally distinct entity from residents, he said, and are therefore not currently covered by the state’s renter guidelines, which could be devastating for thousands of owners and employees statewide.

“This could be live or die for so many small businesses,” Kahele said. “And a lot of them probably aren’t going to make it.”

Kahele said all renters, be they residential or small businesses, should discuss with their landlords and financial institutions about their unique circumstances to determine how to handle payment.

Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president Rhea Lee-Moku issued a statement Wednesday urging the state to take action on the issue.

“Many businesses have had to shut down or significantly reduce operations in the midst of our state’s COVID-19 emergency,” she said. “With little to no income, some business owners will not be able to pay for key expenses like lease rent. If these business owners are evicted, they will have nowhere to restart their business once this emergency is past.”

All council members voted in favor of Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s resolution, which Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said would help bridge a gap in support until the federal government can provide aid.

Lee Loy also introduced Resolution 575-20, which similarly urges Ige to formally suspend evictions for residents. That resolution passed with minimal discussion.

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Both resolutions are advisory only.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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