Nearly $17 million of the county’s $36 million dollar emergency rental assistance fund has been spent. Is it keeping Maui residents housed?
Since the statewide eviction moratorium ended in August, 42 eviction lawsuits have been filed against tenants in Maui County and more than 260 landlords have sought mediation (they are now required to do so by the State). It is unclear how many of those mediations and lawsuits have resulted in termination of housing, but Bevanne Bowers, Maui Mediation’s executive director, said that, “in most cases mediation is at least buying time so that we can keep these cases out of court and see if the parties can come up with their own solution.”
Before the pandemic, there were 296 eviction cases in Maui County and 2,422 in the state in all of 2019. However, as state judiciary spokeswoman Jan Kagehiro pointed out, the numbers do not offer an “apples-to-apples comparison,” because the state’s 2019 judicial data does not differentiate between eviction types, whereas the 42 post-moratorium lawsuits were filed specifically alleging that rent was owed.
When the moratorium expired, a brief surge in eviction lawsuits did ensue, but the worst of it seems to have passed as tenants gain access to emergency rental assistance. In September, 16 lawsuits were filed, followed by 20 in October, and six in November.
Of the 260 cases Maui Mediation had received by mid-November, 60 of them have been “successfully mediated,” according to Bowers. However, specific outcomes are not tracked, meaning those 60 cases could have resulted in the tenant moving out without being evicted in court, or the tenant could have received federal rental assistance to pay owed rent, allowing them to retain housing. Of the other 200-plus cases, more than 40 have gone to court and over 160 are in process or have been resolved independently.
In July, Gov. David Ige signed Act 57 into law, requiring landlords to enter a 15-day mediation process before filing an eviction lawsuit. In those 15 days, mediators work with tenants to assess whether they qualify for emergency CARES Act funding to pay rent that is owed.
However, Yukari Murakami, head of Maui’s Legal Aid Society office, said that many tenants who do not owe outstanding rent have been given a 45-day notice of eviction, often because the property is being sold. “For those tenants, it is very, very hard,” Murakami said. “They understand that they need to get out, but the market is tighter, so it’s hard for them to find a new place even if they can afford something.”
In those cases, Murakami says negotiating more time is often the only antidote. “We’re trying to get everyone to have an open mind and be able to work together to come to a common solution so that we can prevent homelessness.”
Murakami estimates that at least one in 10 of the tenants who come to Legal Aid Society for help are at risk of becoming homeless. Many of these clients are over 60 and largely rely on social security to pay rent. Elderly individuals in Hawaiʻi receive a baseline $794 per month in social security while couples receive $1,191. Monthly payments will increase by 5.9 percent in 2022 to $841 and $1,261, the largest jump in nearly 40 years, but the increase pales in comparison with rising rents.
Before the pandemic, median rent was over $1,500 in Maui County. Even in the first half of 2021, studio listings hovered around $1,300 per month with one bedrooms close behind at $1,400 according to rentdata.org. In November, Craigslist was peppered with studios listed for upwards of $1,500 and one bedrooms exceeding $1,700.
In cases where the tenants are behind on rent, mediators and legal professionals try to stave off court-ordered evictions, which can make it exceedingly difficult to rent once they mar a tenant’s record—adding to the likelihood that he or she will experience homelessness. Most tenants who are behind on rent qualify for the county’s emergency assistance program, but they have to be pre-screened by Catholic Charities then ushered through the county’s next round of the application process. “It might be a few weeks before they are able to get the funding,” Murakami said, “but usually we are able to negotiate the pause to help them prevent being evicted while that support is on its way.”
Maui County was allotted $36 million in emergency rental assistance funds from the $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance set aside by Congress last winter. By Dec. 15, nearly $17 million had been dispersed to nearly 2,500 applicants in Maui Nui. Another 396 applications were under review while 315 had been denied.
Jillian Okamoto of Catholic Charities Hawaiʻi, the organization heading the emergency rental funds dispersal, said that the 292 applicants who were rejected either had an income higher than 80 percent area median income, had not been impacted by the pandemic, or often simply did not respond to phone calls and emails.
Maude Cummings, executive director of Maui’s Family Life Center, another organization tasked with assessing emergency rental assistance eligibility, said that though many applicants had been significantly affected by the pandemic, some had attempted to take advantage of the moratoriums and assistance programs. “Some people have just refused to pay rent,” Cummings said. “We just talked to someone that has $7,000 in income, so I said, ‘Why did you not pay your rent?’”
“What they don’t understand is, yes there is money out there to pay rent for people who were COVID-affected, but we still have to be good stewards of it,” Cummings explained, adding that she had already been audited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I’ve been audited and asked, ‘Why did you help this person when the data shows that they were getting unemployment of $600 a week for one person?’ If they are not getting the assistance, there’s a reason,” Cummings said.
Okamoto confirmed that the demographic of Maui residents seeking emergency assistance was more broad than the usual pool of housing assistance applicants that Catholic Charities had dealt with before the pandemic. Though she estimated that 95 percent of applicants were behind on rent, others sought to remedy their situation proactively, including middle-class families working in the tourism or restaurant industry who were looking for help transitioning into more affordable housing. “People who, before, had pretty good income coming in and could afford $2,500 or $3,000 a month rent, but with the economy slowly recovering, they wanted to find cheaper places to rent in case COVID doesn’t go away entirely,” said Okamoto.
This downsizing of the middle class may have put additional strain on those just above the poverty line by reducing inventory in the more affordable rental range, at a time when inventory at large is the lowest it’s been in decades. In October, there were 330 homes and condos for sale in Maui County, a 65 percent decrease from the year before, according to data from the Realtors Association of Maui.
Mediation may be keeping eviction cases out of court, presenting a seemingly low eviction rate, but in a state where data is not the government’s strong-suit, it is difficult to know how many have been more quietly forced out of their homes. The U.S. Census American Housing Survey shows that for every tenant who is formally evicted, more than five are informally evicted (belongings are removed and locks changed, etc.).
In a rural county where many rental agreements are informal from the get-go, knowing how many people have been forced to leave their living situation to evade a flood, accommodate a sale, or make room for a growing family, is a daunting task.
Landlords on the other hand, have been forced to bear the financial burdens of the moratoriums, an obligation that some are more equipped to handle than others. Kihei property manager Jordan McEntire filed an eviction lawsuit in September on behalf of a client who had not received rent for four months, despite having attempted to connect the tenants, an elderly, retired couple, with rental assistance programs. McEntire said that his client (a tenant himself on the Mainland) was paying the mortgage on his Kihei condo by renting it out, with hopes of moving to Maui when he reached retirement age.
“His hands were tied. He was trying to cover his rent and his mortgage on Maui on a teacher’s salary and didn’t know what to do. He was panicking,” McEntire recalled.
Fortunately, the tenants in McEntire’s case were able to pay their arrears during the mediation process and move directly into new housing. However, the client had already listed the property for sale in order to mitigate his financial loss (approximately $17,000 at that point). When the tenants moved out, the property was sold to a new out-of-state owner. McEntire said he believes the new owners plan to take up residence in the condo; but if they don’t, the future of the condo could be tenuous. Perhaps it will be rented to other Maui residents in need of housing, or perhaps it will join South Kihei’s fleet of vacation rental listings and part-time-resident housing that sit empty half the year.
McEntire, who is also a real estate agent, says he empathizes with anyone trying to partake in today’s housing market. “I was saving up for a down payment, but it’s a lot,” McEntire, himself a renter, said. “As the market kept moving, I felt like it was just out of reach, then just out of reach again, and I was trying to catch it before it was too far out of reach.” For now McEntire has decided to wait and see if there is a plateau somewhere on the horizon that might allow him to catch up with Maui’s million-dollar-median housing market.