Free mediation sessions aim to curb evictions

  • Julie Mitchell

Landlord and tenant participation in a free mediation program is ramping up as more landlords become eligible to begin eviction proceedings.

In June, Gov. David Ige signed a bill requiring landlords to send any eviction notices to both a tenant and a mediation center in order to schedule a free 90-minute mediation session between landlord and tenant. The provisions of the bill are set to end one year after the end of Ige’s statewide eviction moratorium on Aug. 6.

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For the first month of the program, from Aug. 7 to Sept. 6, landlords could only initiate this process if their tenants were behind by four months of rent or more. But on Sept. 7, eligibility widened to include tenants behind by three months of rent, and will continue month-by-month until landlords can initiate proceedings against any tenant behind by one month of rent.

As more tenants become eligible, mediation centers on both sides of the island have seen an uptick in participation in the program.

“On Tuesday of this week, we had eight cases open, six of which had been mediated,” said Eric Paul, executive director of the West Hawaii Mediation Center. “And then on Wednesday, we got 41 new cases.”

Julie Mitchell, executive director of the Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center in Hilo, said there have been about 30 open mediation cases on the east side of the island since the program began.

“Every day we get more. And we’re getting a similar number of inquiries about the program,” Mitchell said.

Paul said he had expected more people to participate in the first month of the program. However, he hypothesized that landlords may have been hesitant to initiate proceedings because of confusing messaging about state and federal eviction moratoriums.

The statewide moratorium on evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent ended on Aug. 6 after repeated extensions. However, a federal moratorium set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Aug. 3 halted evictions in all counties with heightened levels of community transmission, which applied to all Hawaii counties at the time.

On Aug. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the CDC’s moratorium, leaving Hawaii without any active eviction moratoriums. But Paul speculated that many landlords are waiting until Oct. 3, the scheduled end date of the CDC moratorium, out of an abundance of caution or confusion about which moratoriums are still active.

Paul added that the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is helping tenants meet their obligations with their landlords without needing to resort to mediation.

Agreements struck during mediation can range from both parties applying for emergency assistance in order to keep the tenant housed, or the landlord forgiving unpaid rent in exchange for the tenant leaving, or anywhere in between, Paul said. By discussing the matter in a controlled environment, mediation can allow tenants to speak on equal footing as landlords.

“In conflicts … it’s natural for there to be miscommunication or anger,” Paul said. “It’s hard to make the first step when there’s fear involved.”

The free program will continue until Aug. 6 of next year.

Landlords or tenants in East Hawaii can contact Ku‘ikahi Mediation Center at (808) 935-7844, while those in West Hawaii can contact West Hawaii Mediation Center at (808) 664-0991.

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More information about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program can be found at HawaiiCountyERAP.org

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

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