Mediation program to help landlords, tenants

  • Ashley Kierkiewicz

Big Island tenants and landlords alike are being offered free mediation services by a county program seeking to stave off a flood of COVID-related evictions later in the year.

Although Gov. David Ige issued a moratorium on residential evictions last month that made it illegal to evict tenants for failing to pay rent through May 31, once that moratorium ends, tenants who were unable to pay rent will have their overdue payments come due all at once, said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

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“We want to get ahead of this tsunami of evictions that’s coming,” Kierkiewicz said.

To that end, Hawaii County, the Hawaii Community Foundation, Hawaii County Realtors and the West Hawaii Association of Realtors partnered to develop the Rapid Response Landlord Tenant Mediation Program, which offers free mediation services through the Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center and the West Hawaii Mediation Center.

The program, which had a soft launch on Friday, is intended to help residential and commercial tenants and landlords come to agreements about their individual financial cases without necessarily resorting to legal action.

“It can be hard to talk about money, especially when there’s a perception of this power differential like between landlord and tenant,” said Julie Mitchell, executive director of the Ku‘ihaki Mediation Center.

However, Mitchell added, many landlords can’t afford to lose their tenants — particularly as the pandemic-fueled economic downturn makes vacancies harder to fill — while tenants can’t afford to pay months of back rent all at once, so both parties should be motivated to come to an agreement.

Kehaulani Costa, executive officer of Hawaii Island Realtors, said she has heard from property managers that most landlords seem to be willing to work with tenants on ways to modify or defer rental payments.

That said, she added, thousands of workers around the state are still waiting for unemployment benefits or other financial support and might still be waiting for some time.

“Landlords are going to have bills like the rest of us,” Costa said. “Maybe they have kids’ college bills to pay for, maybe they have hospital bills. Maybe they’ve lost their main jobs, too. Just because they have these properties doesn’t mean they have a lot of money to work with.”

Mitchell said that, based on the housing crash of 2008, an economic disruption of this magnitude naturally comes with an influx of court cases. She said the years following 2008 saw Ku‘ikahi’s largest case load ever.

“If you’re not sure what’s going to happen, you need to have these conversations with your tenant or landlord early, before the courts reopen,” Mitchell said, although she added that mediation does not preclude the possibility of legal action in the future.

The Rapid Response Program can be accessed via the mediation centers’ websites.

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East Hawaii tenants and landlords can learn more at hawaiimediation.org, while West Hawaii residents can visit whmediation.org.

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

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