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Nonprofits urge landlords and tenants to apply for aid

State eviction moratorium set to end next week

With the end of the federal eviction moratorium today, local nonprofits are urging landlords and tenants to prepare for mediation and apply for rental assistance, which may still be available to families who are behind on rent even if they’ve gone back to work. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With the clock ticking on Hawaii’s eviction moratorium, local nonprofits sitting on untapped funds are calling for landlords and tenants to apply for rental relief in hopes of avoiding a wave of evictions next month.

Organizations like Catholic Charities Hawaii and Maui Economic Opportunity say that applications for rental assistance programs have slowed, raising concerns that families are missing out on aid that could help them stay in their homes.

“There was a lot of sense of urgency and panic last year,” said Jennifer McGurn, assistant director of community services at MEO. “I think now a lot of people are back at work, and one thing I think that people don’t realize is even if you are working again, if you were affected by COVID, you can still get assistance. You don’t need to be still unemployed. So we’re actually seeing less response than we expected for the emergency rental assistance program, and we don’t really know why that is.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic put millions of people out of work, applications for unemployment benefits, business relief and rental assistance poured in. The federal government funneled billions in aid to states and counties to help them bail out residents and businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Jillian Okamoto, division administrator for Catholic Charities Hawaii’s housing assistance and referral programs, said that the nonprofit helped carry out two prior COVID relief programs, including the state’s Rent Relief and Housing Assistance Program that doled out nearly $60 million in about three months.

“We saw the applications flowing through like a tsunami,” Okamoto said.

Catholic Charities was later contracted to administer the Maui County Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which began accepting applications in May. The program helps households that make 80 percent or below the area median income pay rental and utility bills going back to March 13, 2020, as well as current or future bills through December of this year. Applicants who qualify can receive up to $2,500 a month for rent and utilities, up to $2,000 a month for future rent and up to $500 a month for utilities, with payments going directly to the landlord or utility company. Okamoto said the program has distributed about $7 million to a little under 900 households.

“Maui has been a little bit slower than anticipated, but we continue to provide the outreach through other agencies we have contracted in Maui,” Okamoto said Friday. “We have a handful of applications trickling in every day. It’s continuous, it’s just a little slow.”

Like McGurn, Okamoto said it’s possible people have returned to work and don’t realize they could still be eligible for aid. Or, they may just be flat out exhausted.

“Some are burned out. They don’t want to apply and keep applying, and that’s what I think a lot of states are actually seeing is that people, they’re done with providing documents already,” she said.

Okamoto urged residents to apply even if they’re worn out or unsure if they qualify.

“We do have people ready on the phone to assist and walk people through it so they’re not alone,” she said. “And we can definitely help talk them through it. . . . We can’t force anybody but we’re here to help.”

MEO also offers rental and mortgage assistance through the Community Development Block Grant COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, with up to $1,500 per month in mortgage and up to $1,000 in rent over a three-month period available through Dec. 31.

The nonprofit also provides regular rental assistance that can help with security deposits, the first month’s rent, rental subsidies or utility deposits/disconnections, regardless of whether they’ve been impacted by the pandemic.

McGurn said that MEO has tried to spread the word, doing outreach once or twice a week in Kihei, Lahaina and Upcountry throughout June and July. Staff were expecting a big turnout but only saw about three or four people a day on average.

“We assume with stimulus checks and tax returns and things like that, perhaps people have prioritized paying their rent, so maybe they’ve used all that stimulus money, paid their rent and they’re not behind on rent,” McGurn said.

If MEO and other nonprofits see a surge in applications after the state moratorium ends on Friday, McGurn said they’ll be ready.

“We’re fully staffed, and we are, I think, in a very good place if we do get significant uptick in applications,” she said. “I think we are ready to process them, and so is Catholic Charities, so I guess we’ll see what happens.”

State and county officials and nonprofits are bracing for a potential rise in evictions once the moratorium ends. Lori Tsuhako, director of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns, said “we don’t have reliable data on how many tenants are in arrears with rent,” but that the total amount requested by applicants through the county rental assistance program is $7.5 million.

“I won’t speculate about what may happen, but the county has been proactive in helping our residents by funding programs that address food insecurity, with rental assistance for those who don’t meet the criteria of the federally funded program and working with nonprofit partners to house people who are homeless,” Tsuhako said via email Friday.

Tsuhako pointed to the county’s creation of the Hawaii Emergency Laulima Partnership (HELP) in 2020 and its request for $40 million in federally funded rental and utility assistance. She also credited Catholic Charities for working “extremely hard” to publicize the program.

“We are carefully watching the number of inquiries/applications to this program,” Tsuhako said. “We have enough funding, and we strongly encourage all tenants who need assistance to apply. The County of Maui has additional programs that may assist families that do not meet eligibility criteria for the Emergency Rental and Utility program.”

According to Maui County Emergency Rental Assistance Program data, the program started out with $36 million and has distributed just under $7 million while processing 1,656 transactions, for an average of $8,037.61 per transaction. A total of 1,217 applications have been submitted, with 868 completed with funds distributed and 208 under review or pending.

Maui County spokesperson Brian Perry also said that $146,132 has been given out in utility assistance, which includes electricity, water, gas and sewerage fees.

Even officials with the court system are urging landlords and tenants to seek out rental and mortgage assistance. The Hawaii State Judiciary has been working with Maui Mediation Services, Legal Aid Society, Maui County, Catholic Charities and MEO to prepare for the end of the moratorium.

“We have no way of knowing exactly how many cases will get filed in court, but we are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure cases are handled in a fair and expeditious manner,” the Judiciary said in a statement on Friday.

Information sheets on the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants will be available at the courthouse and on the Judiciary website next week, along with links to Maui Mediation Services and the agencies providing financial assistance.

Court navigators will also offer free legal information to self-represented litigants.

“A number of Maui attorneys have volunteered to provide free legal representation to those who are not able to afford to hire an attorney,” the Judiciary said. “If a case goes to court, the parties will have a chance to let the judge know if they need an attorney. The judge will allow them to complete the application for the free attorney service and they will be contacted about next steps if they meet the income-qualifications.”

Residents can also access volunteer attorneys at the courthouse’s Self-Help Center. For a free consultation, call (808) 707-7153 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays.

“While it is difficult to know in advance, we have been preparing for months to maximize the use of our existing staffing and resources to handle the cases and will make adjustments to calendars if necessary,” the Judiciary said.

Landlords must give tenants a 15-day notice before filing to evict them. Tenants who receive an eviction notice should contact Maui Mediation Services and schedule mediation within 15 days of receiving the notice. If the tenant schedules mediation, the landlord must participate, but if the tenant does not arrange a session, the landlord can file for eviction on the 16th day. Once in court, the judge may still order mediation.

Officials are hoping the bulk of cases will be resolved through mediation before they get to court, pointing out that the process of litigation can be “stressful and expensive.”

“There is a significant amount of money to help landlords and tenants, both for those that have suffered due to COVID-19 and those who may be struggling for other reasons,” the Judiciary said. “Through mediation, litigants will be able to explore their options for rental or mortgage assistance. The diversion of cases to mediation is expected to reduce the number of cases that are filed in court. This will ensure the courts are not overwhelmed when the moratorium ends.”

• For more information on the Maui County Emergency Rental Assistance Program, visit mauicounty.gov/mauirenthelp.

• To reach Catholic Charities on Maui, call (808) 873-4673 or email info@catholiccharitieshawaii.org. Applicants are urged to actively check their voicemail and email, including the spam/junk folder.

• For more information on MEO’s rental assistance programs, visit meoinc.org/programs-services/community -services/rental-assistance/ or call (808) 249-2970.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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