Court cases dealing with evictions on Oahu are down by 25 percent since April with the help of $4.7 million in state funds used to help families stay in their homes.
“It’s made a huge difference,” said Sheila Lippolt, housing staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. “Most of my clients will be long-term homeless if they don’t receive financial help. I’ve had people call back crying, saying they didn’t think there was anything to help them.”
“Regular claims” cases on Oahu — which include debt collection, landlord-tenant summary possession cases and other civil claims up to $40,000 — have fallen to 8,710 so far this year from 11,633 last year, according to First Circuit Judge Hilary Gangnes.
Gangnes and Judge Michael Tanigawa preside over most of Oahu’s eviction cases, and are leading an effort called STAE, which stands for “Steps to Avoid Eviction.” “By the time they (tenants) get to court, frequently they owe so much rent, the hole is so deep, that they just can’t get out of it,” Gangnes said. The state money has benefited families at risk of becoming homeless — along with their landlords, Gangnes said. “Many of them (landlords) are in total support,” Gangnes said. “The landlord just loses money filing suit.”
A court case against the tenant makes it harder to find permanent housing because background checks will reveal a judgment and landlords often ask whether they’ve been evicted. Aloha United Way was hired by the state Department of Human Services in April to distribute $4.7 million to get homeless people off the street and to provide one-time financial aid to keep families from ending up homeless. Three-quarters of the money has gone to help people stay in their homes.
The effect was immediate, according to property managers, Gangnes and attorneys for both clients and property owners. AUW brought them all together last week at its offices on North Vineyard Boulevard to discuss the impact of the funding in tackling Hawaii’s notorious ranking of the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country. The program is expected to continue through mid-2017. Out of the original $4.7 million, AUW still has $1.49 million left to distribute. David Chee, one of three attorneys who handle the bulk of Oahu eviction cases on behalf of landlords, called the AUW program “huge.”
Just a few weeks after AUW began distributing the money, Chee said, he “noticed a change right away.” “The problem before was that there were no resources available for someone who was behind in the rent,” Chee said. Programs that could possibly help took weeks to process eligibility, Chee said. “By the time they qualified I’d have them out because the (eviction) process moves so quickly,” Chee said.
Unlike other types of court cases, renters could find themselves before Gangnes just days after receiving a five-day notice that they’ve missed a rent payment. The AUW program, Chee said, “saves the day for them and also saves the day for my client.” As of Monday, 1,111 people had received financial aid and the money helped 3,471 people comprising 655 island families. The majority of recipients — 66 percent — continue to be on Oahu. The typical family at risk of becoming homeless needed a one-time payment of $1,046 to stay in their home, according to AUW data.
While AUW officials have been surprised at how relatively little money families need to stave off eviction, Dave Spinazza, community manager of Kapilina Beach Homes in Ewa Beach, said the impact of the aid was immediate and has kept families from becoming homeless. Kapilina Beach Homes staff now immediately let struggling tenants know about AUW’s improved 211 phone system, which has been redesigned to better identify and help homeless people — and those at risk of becoming homeless. Since learning about 211 and the state money flowing through AUW, Spinazza wrote in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the program has helped a half-dozen tenants at Kapilina Beach Homes.
“The number of files that we have sent to our attorney has decreased by approximately 49 percent since August in relation to the rest of the year,” Spinazza wrote. “Of the files that did go to our attorney and agreed to payment plans internally, only 2 percent resulted in eviction. This number is down 10 percent when comparing to statistics of files prior to August 2016.
“We know things happen and we have processes and procedures in place to allow some flexibility for our residents who may need some help,” Spinazza wrote. “However, there are times we cannot provide the help to our residents struggling with nonpayment. That is where 211 has exceeded our residents and our expectations of an assistance program. Aloha United Way and their 211 program has designed and streamlined a process that is clear, concise, and expeditious. Our residents receive the help they need to catch up and also after in order to stay on track.”