The Office of Hawaiian Affairs joined a group of advocates for Hawaiʻi renters at a press conference on August 4th to warn landlords that they may face serious legal consequences, including possible liability for substantial monetary damages, if they evict tenants during the emergency ban on evictions.
Since April, Governor David Ige has issued a series of proclamations aimed at preventing mass homelessness resulting from the pandemic-related economic crisis. “The law is clear: these evictions are illegal,” said Dan O’Meara, Managing Attorney for the Housing and Consumer Unit of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaiʻi.
Recently, a Waipahu man was evicted along with his wife and young son because he was only able to pay $800 of his $1200 rent after his work hours were cut. In another case, a disabled East Oʻahu senior was threatened with eviction, despite being current on her rent. Both tenants declined to reveal identifying information out of fear of retaliation, but both are contesting their landlords’ illegal actions.
Tom Helper, Director of Litigation for Lawyers for Equal Justice and attorney for the Waipahu tenant said, “landlords who violate the law are at risk for judgements of thousands of dollars.” He noted that the landlord has not responded to his letters challenging the illegal eviction, so the next step will be to file a lawsuit in state court.
In the East Oʻahu case, the landlord revoked the eviction notice for now, but is still trying to force the tenant out and may face claims for damages for violating the Emergency Proclamation, according to O’Meara, the tenant’s lawyer.
Advocates say the two cases are examples of a greater problem: landlord disregard for the eviction moratorium. “Landlords have options, including mediation or helping their tenants access rental support funds, which will ultimately make it into their pockets,” said Deja Ostrowski, attorney with the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaiʻi. “Instead, too many landlords immediately move to the illegal option: evicting tenants and forcing people onto the street.”
Most of the illegal evictions involve people at the lower end of the economic scale, including single mothers and their children. O’Meara said that Legal Aid has had tenants whose landlords have turned off their utilities, locked them out or verbally harassed them.
“Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been especially hard hit by the pandemic and its economic impacts. With a disproportionate number of Native Hawaiians residing in homes that they rent, and with many families struggling to make ends meet even before this pandemic began, the eviction moratorium is the only thing standing in the way of a potential tidal wave of eviction actions and the ensuing mass homelessness of Native Hawaiians and others,” said Dr. Sylvia Hussey, OHA CEO.
“This is a trying time for everyone,” added Hussey, “and so many have stepped up to the plate to find long-term solutions that will keep all of us—including both landlords and tenants, as well as those without homes—safe and secure. In the meantime, cooperation with the eviction moratorium is essential to prevent further crises that will make this work so much harder to accomplish.”
The moratorium is currently in place through the end of September.
Renters who have been threatened with eviction are encouraged to call the Legal Aid Society of Hawaiʻi at 808-536-4302.