Landlords, tenants clash despite eviction moratorium

A group of tenants’ rights organizations is warning Hawaii landlords they might face legal consequences for attempting to evict tenants during the state of emergency.

As part of an emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. David Ige announced earlier this year a temporary moratorium on evictions based on failure to pay rent. That moratorium has been extended multiple times this year and is currently slated to end Aug. 31.

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Despite the moratorium, however, tenant advocate groups reported that landlords on all Hawaiian islands have illegally threatened to evict their tenants for failing to pay rent.

Tom Helper, litigation director for Lawyers for Equal Justice, shared during a press conference Tuesday part of a text conversation between a Waipahu, Oahu, tenant and landlord wherein the landlord gives the tenant only a week to vacate the premises and concludes with the statement “If you do not want to move out YOU MUST PAY RENT.”

Helper said the conversation is “great for lawyers” as a clear violation of the moratorium, but the tenant was still illegally evicted. The situation, he said, is indicative of an inherently unbalanced system whereby landlords can abuse and exploit vulnerable tenants.

Dan O’Meara, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, added that he has had cases of landlords cutting off utilities, locking out tenants and verbally harassing tenants as means of forcing renters out.

O’Meara noted that Native Hawaiian and other Polynesian tenants are disproportionately vulnerable to landlord abuse.

“This is revealing a really longstanding trend of unfair treatment,” said Dina Shek, legal director for the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, urging tenants to use all resources at their disposal to protect their rights, including legal services, mediation, calls to elected officials or even calling the police.

Julie Mitchell, executive director of the Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center in Hilo, said she thinks some landlords and tenants are still not clear about the terms of the eviction moratorium.

“It’s clear to me that more people need to know about the legal milieu,” Mitchell said, adding that mediation allows both aggrieved parties to come to a mutually agreeable solution without involving the courts. “What we do encompasses a broader range of possibility.”

With the moratorium currently expected to end before September, Hawaii joins the rest of the nation on the brink of a massive eviction crisis. A federal moratorium protecting tenants of homes with a government-backed mortgage — about 12 million renters — expired in late July, allowing landlords in states without their own moratoria to file eviction proceedings after 30 days notice.

According to think tank The Aspen Institute, about 23 million people nationwide are at risk of eviction.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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