Executive Summary – Evicted in Hawaiʻi

SAFE, STABLE HOUSING provides a foundation for building a successful life—a foundation that can quickly crumble because of an improper eviction. The absence of housing stability increases the likelihood of homelessness, domestic violence, adverse impacts on health, and depressed educational outcomes. These consequences perpetuate generational cycles of poverty and give rise to serious social costs. Despite the heavy toll that eviction takes on households and communities, tenants facing eviction in Hawai‘i have relatively little support to ensure they are not improperly removed from their homes.

Evictions are conducted much more quickly than a typical court case through a process known as “summary possession.” This streamlined process is designed to quickly return possession of housing units to landlords. In theory, summary possession proceeds according to certain rules that level the playing field between landlords and tenants. However, the proceedings are only fair to the extent that the parties involved understand the rules.

A party with superior knowledge of the process gains a great advantage, creating a power imbalance. In Hawai‘i, landlords almost always have the advantage. The majority of landlords are represented by legal counsel who can guide them through the process, and many other landlords appear through highly knowledgeable professional agents. Meanwhile, the percentage of represented tenants is close to nil. It is therefore unsurprising that landlords regain possession in almost every case: various studies indicate that unrepresented tenants are highly unlikely to win in court. Certainly, in many cases, landlords prevail because there was adequate cause for eviction. However, it is more often the case that tenants do not fully understand the proceedings and cannot effectively advocate for themselves. In the frequent instances in which a tenant fails to respond to an eviction summons, a default judgment is entered in favor of the landlord.

During three separate study periods spanning eight years, Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) examined evictions in Hawai‘i. The results of the study in all three periods confirm the existence of a stark disparity in legal representation between landlords and tenants, and a resulting disparity in case outcomes. Approximately 70 percent of landlords are represented by counsel, as opposed to 5 percent of tenants. About half of all eviction cases result in default judgment for the landlord due to the tenant’s failure to appear in court. Unsurprisingly, eviction is the final outcome in 85 to 95 percent of cases.

Inside This Report

  • A discussion of the financial, social, and procedural costs of evictions in Hawai‘i;
  • An overview of summary possession cases in Hawai‘i, including the legal process followed in Hawai‘i District Courts and the grounds for and defenses to a claim for summary possession;
  • Findings and analysis of LEJ’s eviction study; and
  • Recommendations aimed at addressing the inequities in our current summary possession process and reducing rent payment defaults.

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