Tenant advocates warn landlords of consequences for illegal evictions
News Release from Appleseed, August 4, 2020
LINK: Click here for 8/4/2020 Press Conference Video
HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (August 4th, 2020) — A group of advocates for Hawai‘i tenants are warning landlords that they may face serious legal consequences, including possible liability for substantial money damages, if they attempt to evict tenants during the emergency ban on evictions.
In one recent case, attorneys for a Waipahu tenant who was evicted along with his wife and young son sent a letter to the landlord challenging the illegal act. Attorneys sent a similar letter to the landlord of a disabled East O‘ahu senior tenant after her landlord threatened her with eviction, even though she is current on her rent. Both tenants declined to reveal identifying information out of fear of retaliation, but both are contesting the landlords’ impermissible actions.
Since April, Governor Ige has issued a series of proclamations aimed at preventing mass homelessness resulting from the recent 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 Hawai‘i, which represents several tenants who are being repeatedly asked to leave their property. The moratorium is currently in place through August 31, 2020.
In the Waipahu case, the tenant was able to pay only $800 of his $1200 rent because his hours were cut. He pleaded with the landlord to stop the eviction, sending a text that said: “It’s not legal what ur doing to me and my family …. Plzz don’t do this to us.” The landlord responded by text: “If you do not want to pay rent YOU MUST MOVE OUT.” Not able to pay full rent, the tenant and his family moved out.
An attorney for the Waipahu tenant, Tom Helper, Director of Litigation for Lawyers for Equal Justice, wrote to the landlord regarding the clear violations of law and potential damages for the eviction. “Landlords who violate the law are at risk for judgements of thousands of dollars,” Helper said. Helper said that the landlord has provided no response, and that the next step will be to file a lawsuit in state court.
In the East O‘ahu case, the landlord revoked the eviction notice for now, but is still trying to force the tenant out and may still face claims for damages for violating the Emergency Proclamation, according to O’Meara, the tenant’s lawyer.
Tenant advocates say the two cases are examples of a much greater problem of landlord disregard for the eviction moratorium. “Landlords have options, including mediating with their tenants, or even helping their tenants access promised rental support funds, which will ultimately make it into their pockets,” said Deja Ostrowski, attorney with the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawai‘i (MLPC). “Instead, we have been receiving too many reports of landlords immediately moving to the illegal option: evicting tenants and forcing people onto the street.”
“The City has made funding available, and the state legislature committed to funding rental assistance. Landlords and tenants alike may have to wait for these funds, as well as other assistance such as unemployment benefits, to provide them with relief. In the meantime, landlords need to work with their tenants, not against them—and sooner, rather than later,” Ostrowski added.
MLPC Director Dina Shek noted, “MLPC has seen many Micronesian clients who are ‘essential’ workers, paying rent or awaiting rent supports, and whose communities are severely impacted by COVID-19. They should be afforded all mediation and housing supports, not targeted for illegal evictions.”
O’Meara said that Legal Aid has had tenants who have experienced landlords turning off their utilities, as well as locking tenants out, and verbal harassment—“why don’t you just leave?” —“when will you get out?” O’Meara said that Legal Aid has been able to successfully keep subsidized housing tenants in place by highlighting the illegal means of eviction by the landlords, but that some tenants have been forced out by the landlords’ inappropriate and illegal tactics.
“There is frustration both for landlords and tenants during this time of the eviction moratorium, unemployment, and reduced means to pay rent or mortgages,” said O’Meara.
“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 Sylvia M. Hussey, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “This is a trying time for
everyone, 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 tenant advocates encouraged tenants who have been threatened with eviction to call the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i at 808-536-4302.
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