New law requires landlords to use mediation before evicting tenants

  • Julie Mitchell

Mediation centers on the Big Island are preparing for an influx of cases when the state’s eviction moratorium ends in August.

On Wednesday, Gov. David Ige ratified a new law aimed at preventing a tsunami of eviction cases when the current prohibition on evicting tenants for failing to pay their rent ends on Aug. 6 after more than a year.

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The law allocates funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward free mediation services that landlords must make an effort to use before they can file eviction proceedings in court.

Hawaii County is slated to receive $559,000 for the two nonprofit mediation centers on the Big Island.

By requiring landlords to seek mediation before evicting, the initiative, which begins Aug. 7, is intended to help landlords and tenants find other solutions.

“If people are behind on their rent, there are other options for them,” said Sharon Hirota, specialist with the County Department of Housing and Community Development.

With both the state eviction moratorium and a nationwide eviction moratorium established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also slated to end on June 30, experts fear a coming tide of millions of evictions. According to a May report from Harvard University, more than 6 million households nationwide are behind on rent, and more than 2 million are behind on mortgage payments.

Eric Paul, executive director of the West Hawaii Mediation Center, said he is expecting 500 to 600 new landlord-tenant cases after Aug. 7. He added that the University of Hawaii has estimated that roughly 1,200 households on the Big Island are behind on rent.

Under the new law, landlords are required to send an eviction notice to both a tenant and a mediation center simultaneously before filing any eviction court proceedings. Upon receipt of this notice, the mediation center has 15 days to schedule a mediation hearing between the landlord and tenant.

“If the tenant agrees to it, then we mediate,” Paul said. “If the tenant doesn’t agree to it, then the landlord can file eviction proceedings.”

From Aug. 7 until Sept 6, landlords will only be able to initiate the mediation process if their tenants are behind by four months of rent or more. From Sept. 7 until Oct. 6, they will be allowed to initiate the process with tenants behind by three or more months of rent, and from Oct. 7 until Dec. 6 tenants behind by two months are eligible. After this point, any tenant behind by one month rent or more is eligible.

The program ends Aug. 6, 2022.

Julie Mitchell, executive director of the Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center in Hilo, said mediation can help both landlord and tenant learn if they are still eligible for some rental assistance programs.

For example, she said, the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program can provide grants for households struggling with rent — but not if the landlord has already evicted the tenant, meaning both sides have a mutual interest in not pursuing evictions.

Alternatively, mediation can help negotiate a graceful exit for the tenant, Mitchell said, allowing both sides to work out a move-out plan.

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“Even without an agreement, there’s still a benefit to both sides sitting down with each other and having a healthy conversation about it,” Paul said.

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

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