Potential flood of eviction cases could be too much for county mediation program

A county program providing free mediation services to tenants and landlords has an uncertain future.

The Rapid Response Landlord Tenant Mediation Program began in May to solve disputes between tenants and landlords struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the program, mediation centers on both sides of the island have opened 98 cases between landlords and tenants.

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However, while the program will continue through the foreseeable future after receiving additional funding earlier this year, it might be insufficient to manage a potential flood of eviction cases at the end of the year.

Currently, there are moratoria in place on the state and national levels prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for failing to pay rent. The statewide moratorium is scheduled to end Nov. 30, while the federal one is scheduled to end on New Year’s Eve.

“Everyone’s concerned about what will happen next,” said Julie Mitchell, executive director of Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center. “We’ve been having discussion with various parties about how we’re going to proceed when the moratorium ends.”

Mitchell pointed out that assistance programs for tenants have dried up in recent weeks. A statewide program providing rental and mortgage assistance stopped accepting applications in mid-October after a flood of applicants overwhelmed the state’s ability to process them.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii County Rent and Mortgage Assistance Program closed applications last week, having disbursed $8.25 million to more than 3,500 residents.

With no additional federal funding forthcoming through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — particularly during the governmental transition following the election — Mitchell said more people than ever are struggling to afford rent and will be in dire straits when the moratorium lifts.

“The programs took some of the pressure off, but they didn’t solve the problem, which is that people still are out of work and can’t pay rent,” Mitchell said.

While the state moratorium theoretically ends this month, Mitchell pointed out that Gov. David Ige can and has extended that deadline in the past. However, whenever it ends, Mitchell said she expects a sharp increase in people seeking mediation unless new assistance programs are put in place.

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Tenants and landlords aren’t the only people seeking mediation, either. Eric Paul, executive director of the West Hawaii Mediation Center, pointed out that there has been an increase in couples seeking mediation after “experiencing the economic and social strain of the pandemic.”

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

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