With possibly thousands of evictions looming later this month, Gov. Doug Ducey is extending the moratorium he imposed on evictions that he implemented to keep people in their homes amid the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of many businesses.
The executive order was scheduled to expire on July 23, leading to fears that a surge of evictions would leave many renters without homes. Ducey announced at a press conference Thursday that he’s extending the moratorium to Oct. 31 and implementing other measures intended to help struggling renters and landlords.
In order to qualify for the extended eviction moratorium, which prohibits landlords from kicking people out of their homes, though not from initiating eviction proceedings, renters will have to show that they’ve applied for a rent assistance program. Renters do not actually have to have received that assistance in order to qualify for the moratorium.
Ducey announced that the state will provide $650,000 to Community Action Agencies, which helps administer Arizona’s renter assistance program, so it can hire additional staff to distribute more than $80 million that’s available to help keep renters in their homes.
And the governor announced a $5 million foreclosure prevention program to help people who rely on rent checks from their tenants for their income. That program will have criteria to ensure that it focuses on smaller landlords. For example, landlords who received money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program won’t qualify, according to the governor’s office.
The eviction moratorium was intended to help people who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak and economic slump that followed. Increased weekly federal unemployment benefits of $600 have helped Arizonans who lost their jobs make ends meet, supplementing the meager $240 per week that Arizona offers in unemployment payments.
Ducey took note of the staggering number of Arizonans who are receiving those benefits, and the massive amount of money that’s been distributed so far. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Ducey said fewer than 17,000 Arizonans were receiving unemployment benefits. Currently, there are 958,000 Arizonans receiving unemployment payments, and Arizonans have received $6.4 billion so far in state and federal jobless aid, Ducey said.
“It’s almost impossible to get your head around that number,” Ducey said of the dollar figure.
The $600 in federal unemployment benefits that Congress approved earlier this year are set to expire at the end of July. Ducey indicated that he doesn’t plan to increase the state’s benefits, which are among the lowest in the U.S., but said he’s speaking with members of Arizona’s congressional delegation and that he expects those benefits to be extended.
“There is a fourth package coming. We’re not sure exactly what it’s going to be. We’re going to advocate for what’s in the best interest of Arizona and Arizonans,” Ducey said. “Congress almost always acts at the last minute.”
Nothing new on school start plans
After the governor’s announcement on evictions, probably the second-most anticipated policy pronouncement of the day was on K-12 education, specifically whether Ducey would once again push back the start of the 2020-21 school year. On that front, the governor had nothing new to report, though he said to expect something next week.
Ducey delayed the start of the school year to Aug. 17, a date he has called “aspirational” and dependent on it being safe for students, teachers and other school staff to return. Some school districts have unilaterally decided to push back the start date themselves. Phoenix Union High School District, for example, will only offer remote classes through the beginning of October.
Many parents, educators, school board members and others are urging the governor to further delay the start of the school year, and also to ensure that schools that opt for online-only instruction don’t lose funding.
The governor said he’s been speaking with school district superintendents, principals and others, and will work closely with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman to determine how to best start the upcoming school year. He said he will issue additional guidance next week, and that it will provide more flexibility to schools, though he did not elaborate.
“I know people want clarity around this, and we’re going to provide clarity. I’m going to tell you our kids are going to be learning in the fall. We’re going to do our best to conduct the most positive educational year that we can. And I’ll be providing the most specific guidance that I can,” Ducey said.
He also said he would send his children to school now if classrooms were open, as did Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Ducey, who has received widespread criticism for prematurely declaring in May that Arizona is “on the other side of this pandemic,” which was followed by a massive spike in COVID-19 cases after he lifted restrictions meant to curb the spread, sounded a note of cautious optimism. He noted that new case numbers have stopped rising and have in some cases fallen, and said the state’s R-naught number—which measures the average number of people that each COVID-19 patient will infect—has finally fallen below one.
But he warned people not to celebrate prematurely and said “there’s no end in sight.”
“We’ve seen some encouraging news today. I want to reiterate that it’s not a victory lap. It should be a validation of the decisions that we make as citizens in terms of personal actions and personal responsibility that we take (that) can make a difference in our state,” Ducey said.
And as he has for weeks, Ducey implored Arizonans to continue taking precautions like wearing masks in public, physically distancing, washing hands frequently and staying home when possible.
“If you take these on as patriotic duties, you will help us reduce the spread of this virus. You will protect people and livelihoods. And you will remove some of the burden that is on all of our state and country’s health care providers,” he said.