Hawaii island group distributes $7.5M in housing aid, with more on the way

A hui of Hawaii island organizations already has distributed all of its $7.5 million in federal funds to pay rent and mortgages for 1,322 households during the COVID-19 economic and health crisis, but the need is even greater.

Another 1,516 applications are still pending approval.

To help respond to the volume of renters and homeowners who continue to need help on Hawaii island, county officials on Friday issued an additional $1 million in federal funds to the hui and plan to provide $1.4 million more this week, according to Sharon Hirota, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim.

The additional money will help cover rent and mortgage payments to “as many as we could who were still in the pipeline” when applications closed Nov. 5, Hirota said.

The success in distributing the available funds across Hawaii island comes as officials on Oahu worry about spending all of the state’s CARES Act funds by the end of December, when any uncommitted federal money would have to be returned.

On Hawaii island, “We cannot leave money on the table,” said Brandee Menino, chairwoman of Bridging the Gap, which is working with neighbor island agencies to distribute rent and mortgage relief CARES Act funds. “We don’t want to give any of it back to the state or to the feds.”

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In total the group should receive $10.9 million in federal funds, but each organization is eligible to use 15% for staff and operational costs to run the program.

The Hawaii island groups — Hawaiian Community Assets, Hawaii Community Lending, Hawaii First Federal Credit Union, Habitat for Humanity Hawaii Island, HOPE Services Hawaii, Hawaii Island Home for Recovery, Neighborhood Place of Puna — used their backgrounds in helping the homeless and responding to disasters to set up uniform applications and coordinate with one another to prevent duplication and delays in order to quickly distribute aid to those in need.

Menino is a critical leader in the effort to reduce homelessness on Hawaii island and the other neighbor islands.

In 2018, while Kilauea Volcano was erupting, Menino helped coordinate the creation of Sacred Heart Shelter on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church on Pahoa Village Road across from Pahoa High and Intermediate School.

The community came together to build an emergency community of 20 microhousing units for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by lava.

“The Big Island’s not new to disaster,” Menino said. “We’ve had practice. This (COVID-19) is not, like, our first rodeo. We worked as a network to make it as simple as possible. It was done together and not as individual organizations.”

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But the people who have gotten rental and mortgage assistance were mostly new clients, not necessarily repeat clients in lower Puna who needed help following the Kilauea disaster.

The amount of this year’s average housing grant was $3,054 and typically covered two-and-a-half months’ rent or mortgage payments.

Some 4,165 people, with their average household income at $37,710, were able to stay in their homes because of the program.


They included Andrew Hara, 35, of Hilo. He received three months of mortgage payments through December for the $1,600 monthly mortgage on his three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.

In January, when federal aid is scheduled to expire, Hara does not know how he’ll pay his mortgage.

He estimates that he’s lost 80% of his tourism-based photography/video business beginning in May.

“I’m a sole proprietor with a focus in marketing and strategic communications and strategic marketing. Seventy-five percent of my business was tourism and 25% locally based,” Hara said. “In terms of income, I’m running at 20%.”

Hara called the program that’s enabled him to cover his mortgage “something that we should not ever under-appreciate.”

“It’s greatly reduced the amount of stress to find work that’s not there,” he said. “I’m just grateful for any assistance that we can get.”

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In what’s generally considered a rural island, the greatest need came from the northern and leeward sections of the county.

“Even though we’re a rural community, the rural of the rural is not getting served,” Menino said.

The heads of households were nearly evenly divided among men (633) and women (613).

Most people — 720 — needed help covering their mortgages, compared to 602 who needed rent help.

The plurality of people getting financial assistance — 374 — were Native Hawaiian, followed by 352 whites and 344 Asians.


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