Housing crunch adds to crisis: Rental exemptions sought for evacuees

  • Craigslist photo This house, advertised on craigslist as a two-bedroom Keaukaha beach home for rent at $800, was recently found to be an offer too good to be true by a Leilani Estates resident.

A shortage of rental housing in East Hawaii has become part of the ongoing crisis caused by the lava from Kilauea volcano, which has destroyed homes and forced hundreds of lower Puna residents to evacuate.

State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, a Puna Democrat, wrote a letter Tuesday to Gov. David Ige asking him to issue three executive orders to alleviate the housing crisis many are facing.

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San Buenaventura is requesting a waiver of the transient accommodations tax until a month after the emergency declaration has ended for evacuees seeking short-term rentals of less than 180 days.

She’s also asking that evacuee-tenants be allowed to waive certain landlord-tenant code provisions so they could rent vacant houses foreclosed upon or going through foreclosure.

In addition, she’s urging the governor to sign Senate Bill 2401, which would establish an “ohana zone program,” a $50 million grant to provide basic housing needs in addition to social services, health care and transportation for the homeless. The Legislature passed the bill earlier this year.

“Now, because of the evacuees, we’ve got this houselessness problem, and it’s perfect to have this transitional housing for the evacuees,” San Buenaventura said. “Originally, the homeless advocates … were against it because they thought it legalized camping. But now, we’ve worked out the language … to use it to provide temporary housing for these evacuees.”

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, also a Puna Democrat, hopes the governor “will release the money for the ohana zones because we can use that, potentially, for some of our needs over here.”

“It’s very hard to find a rental right now in East Hawaii because all the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” Ruderman said. “And every week, there’s another hundred or two hundred evacuees, including (Tuesday) night … about 500 because of ‘Four Corners’ being closed off.”

Ruderman’s assessment of the rental market is backed by Nancy Cabral, president of Day-Lum Rentals & Management and Coldwell-Banker Day-Lum Properties.

“I could probably rent out, in the next month, 100 houses. And there’s not enough houses,” Cabral said. “I’ve already got tenants and applicants that are ready to move into anything that comes up in the next 30 days. If somebody gives me notice that they’re moving out in the next 28 days, I’ve already got two or three or four people ready to move in. So there’ll be no vacancy.

“It seems everybody down there still wants to stay in lower Puna,” she continued. “They love it down there. That’s their home, so they’re trying to stay there. They prefer houses over apartments. We’re trying to turn over anything that comes out as fast as possible and just get it ready for somebody to move back in.”

Susie Osborne, principal of Kua O Ka La Public Charter School in Leilani Estates, and herself a displaced Leilani resident, found a house outside Hilo through friends. But while looking, she ran across a rental listing on the internet site craigslist advertising a two-bedroom beach home for $800 in the Keaukaha neighborhood of Hilo.

The listing, she said, which was still online as of Wednesday, turned out to be a scam: The real estate agent who is listing the home for sale said it wasn’t for rent.

“I felt sick to my stomach that anybody would stoop so low to do something to another human at this incredible time of crisis in our community,” Osborne said.

San Buenaventura, an attorney, said it’s difficult to prosecute rental scams such as the one Osborne said she encountered.

“When I became a state rep, I needed to find a place to live in Honolulu. And you see all these gorgeous places that are on craigslist,” she said. “And you find out really fast that these are too good to be true. There’s no one to physically show you the place. They’ll show you a photo of the place. There is no physical person you can sign a lease to. These have been around awhile, but now we’re more aware of it, because in Puna, people are more desperate.”

Osborne said she’s also heard about rental-price gouging from friends.

“You see a place (advertised) for rent, and a few days later, it’s up a few hundred dollars. I think it’s ongoing. There are so many people displaced, and there’s so few places,” she said.

Ruderman said he’s also heard anecdotal reports of price hikes for rental properties.

According to Cabral, raising rents during a state of emergency is against the law.

“The emergency declaration freezes rents at the current level at the time,” she said.

Cabral said she has a list of ideas to ease the housing crisis, including setting up a nonprofit organization to provide security deposits for those displaced by lava. The funds would be returned to the nonprofit to help others in the future.

And, like San Buenaventura, she wants the governor and mayor to “eliminate some red tape and relax rules to help people get new homes to rent or to get them built.”

Ruderman has his own ideas for easing the housing crunch caused by the lava, including a proposal to allow tiny houses to be built, and the donation of state land to a nonprofit organization for the development of villages of small homes that could be sold to displaced homeowners.

He said the goal is to not have people languishing in emergency shelters for months.

“I think the existing shelter is becoming its own crisis rather fast, a mental health and a social crisis,” he said. “And we need to get people out of there fast, for their own mental health, for their own physical health.

“The people who have been in the shelter for more than three weeks are really under a lot of stress. They can’t leave their valuables. If they’re in a tent and the guy in the next tent is yelling at his partner, it’s terrible to listen to that night after night. I think the best short-term solution is these tiny houses.

“I don’t want to jump the gun, but I believe there will be an announcement from county housing in the next day or two about these tiny houses, and that would be for short-term relocation.”

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Reporter Stephanie Salmons contributed to this report.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.