For once, Arizona is not at the bottom of a ranking of the states. In fact, we are dead center of how states are dealing with rent, evictions, and court procedures during the pandemic: 25 states have even fewer protections for renters affected by the corona virus than Arizona. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, out of 5 possible stars, Arizona has 1.4.
Of the five possible ways in which tenants could be supported during this pandemic, Gov. Doug Ducey has mandated only one: No actual eviction if a tenant has a COVID-19 hardship until the governor’s executive order expires in July. But landlords can still give notice to quit, file for eviction for nonpayment, and for any other non-COVID-19 related reason. To claim a COVID-19 hardship, a tenant must notify the landlord in writing about the circumstances that make it impossible to pay rent, and, further, must provide documentation of the circumstance.
Arizona’s court procedures have not been “stayed,” nor have hearings been suspended. Law enforcement can remove a tenant for nonpayment or any other breach of contract that is not related to the pandemic. There is no moratorium on disconnecting utilities and there is no grace period to pay rent that may accrue during the pandemic.
Even if a tenant has a COVID-19 related reason for nonpayment, all of the unpaid rent will be due immediately when the moratorium expires.
Landlords in Arizona can still charge late fees, raise the rent, and there is no mandated legal counsel for tenants who face eviction.
I recently talked with someone who has been trapped in this maze of inconsistencies and half-created exemptions. “John” is a veteran who served 22 years in the military and now is disabled, living on his social security. He advocates for homeless vets, but he himself has been able to stay sheltered. Until recently.
John was evicted after he filed a police report about gunfire by another tenant on the premises. On April 1, he was given an eviction notice. On April 2, he applied to legal aid for a lawyer to help him contest the eviction, which was denied. On April 7 he went to court but was not allowed to enter for his hearing because he had a cold (just a runny nose, according to John, and no fever). He was not allowed to appear telephonically. He was told to go home and quarantine himself for 14 days. He returned home to follow those directions. On April 11, he was told he had to vacate the premises by midnight.
What is wrong with this picture?
John had no opportunity to give his landlord a letter about his quarantine, which would definitely have qualified as a COVID-19 related incident. His original eviction notice was not related to the pandemic, but his inability to attend his initial court date definitely was. And, yet, he was forced out of his rental property in the middle of a stay-at-home order.
What might have helped John avoid eviction during the pandemic? What else could Ducey have done to stop an epidemic of homelessness from spreading the disease?
Some governors have stopped all evictions and orders of eviction until July when they will reevaluate the spread of COVID-19 in their states. If stopping all orders of eviction seemed too radical, Ducey could simply have stopped the removal of all tenants except in emergencies, like a threat of violence. For John, that would have been a way to take him out of the tangled maze of landlord/court/constable proceedings and allowed him to remain in a home until it was sorted out or until he could represent himself in court. At the very least, he would not have been forced out of his home while under a mandate to quarantine himself.
In fact, John should have been able to at least plead his case against eviction telephonically. In March, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel signed Administrative Orders about court proceedings during the pandemic health emergency. The order requires: “Courts shall limit in-person proceedings as much as possible by using available technologies, including alternative means of filing, teleconference, video conferencing, and use of email and text messages.”
None of these was made available to John in April, in spite of this order, which specifically says that “tenants and landlords summoned to appear in court for an eviction-related case will be given an opportunity to appear telephonically…”
John is emphatic about what this pandemic means for vets, for the homeless, for those who are struggling — financially or with health problems, whether physical or mental. Especially for homeless vets, he says, “there is no hope, no future, no good things are going to come out of this.”