A state moratorium on rent-based evictions is scheduled to end in three weeks, but nobody seems sure what will happen after that.
In February, Gov. David Ige extended the state’s prohibition on evicting tenants for failing to pay their rent until April 13. While that deadline could still be pushed back again — the moratorium was originally imposed in April 2020, and has been repeatedly extended since then — the grace period eventually will run out.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen,” said Scott Shishido, Hilo managing attorney for Legal Aid of Hawaii. “We want to hopefully keep a lot of people from rushing to the courthouse when it goes away.”
Shishido said he’s seen a steady stream of rent dispute cases since the moratorium began last year, and if they all choose to pursue legal action as soon as it is possible, then the courts could be backlogged for months.
If they choose to pursue court action, Shishido said landlords could seek to claim months of back rent from their tenants, although that could be more trouble than it’s worth.
Nancy Cabral, owner of Day-Lum Rentals &Management Inc. in Hilo, said she has initiated court proceedings against four tenants who have failed to pay rent throughout the last year, but admitted that she will likely never receive any damages paid.
“What am I going to do, take it out of their welfare checks?” Cabral said. “If they had jobs, they could maybe have wages garnished, but I’m just going to be stuck with their bills.”
Cabral said the vast majority of Day-Lum renters have been able to maintain rent payments throughout the pandemic. Of those who have struggled, most have availed themselves of state and federal rental assistance programs to get by.
The four tenants who Cabral will seek action against failed to take advantage of such programs, and two of them also caused substantial damage to their rental properties, Cabral said.
Rather than flood the courts with legal cases that might take months to get through, Shishido urged landlords and tenants alike to seek mediation services and settle matters out of court.
“It’s a community issue, really,” Shishido said. “If tenants can’t pay rent, and landlords need rent, then it’s better to look for non-court-ordered remedies.”
Julie Mitchell, director of the Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center in Hilo, said Ku‘ikahi has opened twice as many landlord-tenant cases in the last year than it has in the last five, many of which have resulted in amicable solutions.
However, she added that she can’t predict what will happen when the moratorium ends, because the number of available rental assistance programs seems to change every week.
For now, Shishido and Mitchell both said their respective organizations are trying to get information out to clients to explain what options they will have when the moratorium ends.
Of course, the moratorium could still be extended yet again —“I mean, I hope it will,” Shishido said.
And a federal eviction ban, which ends on March 31, could also be extended through July, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.