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Landlord-Tenant Trouble on Maui

Many see the state’s Landlord-Tenant Code as riddled with loopholes. “We were completely blindsided.”

January 6, 2011
Sarah Ruppenthal

“It was a total nightmare,” the longtime Kīhei resident said. “Aside from not getting six months’ worth of rent, they [the tenants] were a complete nightmare.”

The ink was barely dry on the lease, said Jack, when his tenants began tossing cigarette butts on the lawn, throwing raucous parties and—worst of all—failing to pay the rent. “It was like a really bad made-for-television movie,” he recalled. “We were completely blindsided.”

Jack isn’t alone. Throughout Maui County, a veritable “renters paradise,” unresolved landlord-tenant disputes and eviction processes have proven to be far more than just an inconvenience—they are also very costly.

“I had to pay all of my legal expenses out of my own pocket,” said Jack, “on top of not getting any rent.”

However, on the other side of the proverbial fence, there are scores of tenants who have endured substandard—even hazardous—living conditions. Dozens of online forums dedicated to “landlords from hell” describe grievances ranging from the grotesque (termite infestations and black mold) to the brazen (illegal lockouts and invasion of privacy).

Of course, this isn’t the status quo—there are plenty of congenial landlord-tenant relationships on Maui—but when a bad situation arises, it can get ugly.

Even with a rental agreement, or lease, the lines of responsibility often become blurred. Although there is a set of rules governing Maui County’s housing laws, Hawai‘i’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Code, many perceive the code as vague in nature, and therefore, ineffective.

The code, which outlines the responsibilities and remedies for landlords and tenants, seeks to safeguard the interests of both parties.

But some irate property owners say the law favors the rights of the lessee—while disgruntled tenants maintain the deck is stacked against them.

According to Lynn Araki-Regan of Araki-Regan & Associates, “Our firm does oftentimes receive complaints from landlords that the code is very pro-tenant, prohibiting a landlord from using ‘self-help’ methods to evict a tenant and instead requiring him or her to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’”

So, can—or should—the Residential Landlord-Tenant Code be amended?

“The legislature is free, within the limits of the constitution, to amend the code as it sees fit,” explained Wailuku attorney Lance Collins. “However, because the problems of landlord-tenant relations were not created by legislation, legislation cannot ultimately resolve these problems.”

And while the code may be intended to protect both parties, it can also be manipulated.

“The mechanisms to protect renters are mostly illusory unless the landlord is empathetic without the code’s assistance,” said Collins. “On the other hand, some renters purposefully use the code’s provisions to extract free rent… the code’s shortcomings are most apparent in the situations of mean landlords and conniving renters.”

In addition, he said, while many property owners may feel they are getting the short end of the stick, “The code provides a fairly straightforward process to landlords… this can be helpful to renters in ‘buying time’ to find a new place, but generally renters do not win in the legal process.”

Araki-Regan, who practices landlord-tenant law, contends, “People should appreciate that the eviction process is a relatively fast one compared to other kinds of legal actions. While landlords may want a more efficient process, it oftentimes takes no more than three to four weeks for a tenant, from the time the tenant is served with a formal complaint, to be evicted from the premises.”

Above all, in order to abate—or avoid altogether—these types of disputes, it is recommended that both landlords and tenants review the Hawai‘i Residential Landlord-Tenant Code (http://hawaii.gov/dcca/ocp/landlord_tenant), or purchase a handbook from the state’s Office of Consumer Protection.

In addition, services like Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i provide assistance to tenants who have encountered discrepancies in the state’s housing law. According to its Website, the organization offers “legal advice, help in filling out paperwork, making phone calls, document preparation, one-on-one eviction counseling with an attorney, and full representation in limited cases.”

But Jack sees precious few resources available to landlords.

“All I can really do is file suit,” he said. “It’s the last thing I wanted to do, but at this point, I just want my home—and my life—back, that’s all.”

A copy of the Residential Landlord-Tenant Code (Chapter 521 of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes) is available at all state public libraries. Residents can also purchase a copy of the Hawai‘i Residential Landlord/Tenant Code Handbook for $2 by sending a written request to: The Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Cashier’s Office, P.O. Box 541, Honolulu, HI 96809.

 
 
 

 

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