*Brenda expected to see the words “failed” in a letter from the City and County of Honolulu Section 8 office. A routine quality inspection was recently done on her rental apartment, and they found the enamel peeling away from the tub floor and wall. It was unacceptable, she said.
However, what she was not ready for were to see the words “in abatement.”
“I was afraid and confused,” Brenda said. “I understood that the inspection failed, but I didn’t understand the termination letter stating that the unit would be in abatement, and I would be responsible for the full rent.”
The “Section 8” housing voucher program helps low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing. A Section 8 voucher holder like Brenda is able to pay rent based on a percentage of their income. The voucher pays the balance of rent through a federal subsidy.
However, to maintain the subsidy, rental units under the Section 8 program must pass “Housing Quality Standards” inspections to ensure Section 8 participants are living in sanitary conditions.
If a unit fails the inspection, Section 8 will determine whether the landlord or the tenant is responsible for making repairs. If the landlord is responsible, the Public Housing Authority (PHA) will give the owner a specified time to repair the deficiencies. If the owner does not make the necessary repairs within the timeframe given by the PHA, the housing assistance payments will be abated.
“Abatement” essentially means that the PHA will stop paying its share of the rent to the owner.
During this abatement period, tenants are still responsible for their tenant pay portion, but they are not financially liable for any payments that were withheld by the PHA. The PHA determines how long the abatement period will last, but it generally does not exceed one month.
If the abatement period expires and the owner has still not made repairs, the PHA will then completely terminate the housing assistance payment contract. At this point, tenants are now not only responsible for their tenant pay portion, but they are also responsible for the entire rental amount.
In Brenda’s case, this means she would either have to pay the full month’s rent out of pocket, or she would need to quickly find a new place to live.
“Brenda felt frightened and experienced high anxiety,” said Staff Attorney William Tew, Housing and Consumer Unit, who was her primary advocate when she came to Legal Aid for help in June 2022. “She felt an impending sense of doom as she was on a tight timeline.”
To make matters worse, the landlord refused to make the repair and Brenda was still recuperating from a recent cancer surgery. The 30-day deadline was definitely not enough time for her to find a new place.
“I was scared, and didn’t know what to do,” said Brenda. “I have general anxiety disorder and PTSD. I also have other medical issues that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to find an apartment in such a short time so I started to panic.”
William swiftly went to work and figured out how to help Brenda keep her unit and be off of the streets.
The first thing was to get clarification from Section 8. As it turned out, the date was wrong – Brenda actually had more time to spare, so Section 8 sent a new letter with the correct dates. However, the reasonable accommodation request – a deadline extension due to Brenda's disability – was denied.
The next step was to explain to the landlord/property manager the consequences of their refusal to make repairs. It would mean a loss of income because Section 8 wouldn't be paying the rent, and Brenda did not have the ability to pay the full amount.
Eventually, the landlord decided to make the repairs and Brenda got to stay longer! She now had enough time to search for other properties. (Brenda did not want to continue renting there and the landlord wanted to increase the rent.)
“Legal Aid helped me know what the property manager could and couldn’t do,” said Brenda. “They explained the benefit and consequence of the actions or inaction of the repair in a manner that we all could understand.”
“I am very grateful for Legal Aid’s help because I didn’t feel so afraid and alone anymore,” said Brenda. “They were very professional, kind, respectful. Having Legal Aid in my court gave me strength – in knowing the property manager couldn’t take advantage of me, threaten me or put me out on the street, which was a huge relief as well.”
“I can never thank you enough, but thank you,” she added.
“She was incredibly relieved,” said William. “It was a burden off of her because of so many issues – emotional, financial, medical, and physical. She was very grateful and happy.”