Legal advocates have discovered that hundreds of tenants in Pima County may have been illegally evicted despite CARES Act restrictions. The courts have taken steps to stop this from happening to more people, but how can you tell if this happened to you, and what can you do if it has?
The federal CARES Act, which was approved in late March, prohibits eviction actions against those who cannot pay rent if the property has a federally backed mortgage or if the rent is federally subsidized. However, researchers found 194 cases in Pima County that appear to have gone forward, even though the properties have federally backed mortgages.
That analysis doesn’t take into account the thousands of people in the county who receive federal subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers, to pay their rent. Statewide, an estimated 107,000 people receive federal rental assistance. Because Section 8 recipients aren’t publicly disclosed, the researchers focused only on the property owners.
“The first thing to do is to check to see if there is a federal mortgage on the property you are living at,” said Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation at Community Legal Services.
There are a few ways you can go about doing this.
Non-profit newsroom ProPublica built a database that allows you to search your residence against a database of mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration and certain low-income housing programs.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also each have their own websites for you to look up this information. Some attorneys for landlords say that the information can be out of date, but it is still a good place to start, Bridges said.
The second thing tenants who may be financially struggling due to COVID-19 will want to do actually has three steps, Bridges said.
First, Bridges urged tenants to work with their landlord to figure out a payment plan. By doing so, a tenant will qualify for eviction protection under an executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey curtailing evictions during the pandemic, Bridges said.
Second, tenants should make sure they have applied for rental assistance and complete the process. In order to qualify under the executive order, people have to complete the application, Bridges said.
Rental assistance has been rolled out at a snail’s pace, with applications from April still being processed, according to a report by The Arizona Republic. Nearly 80% of the fund remains unspent.
The third and final step is to make sure you give your landlord notice you are having COVID-related financial issues, whether that is reduced work hours or being sick. Just coming upon hard times unrelated to COVID-19 is not covered under the executive order, Bridges said.
These are the proactive steps tenants in Arizona can take, but what about those who may have already been evicted and are questioning their case?
Bridges advised those who may believe they were wrongfully evicted to call a legal aid association in the county they are in. Groups like Community Legal Services can’t actively solicit for clients because of ethical rules, but they know from the data that people have been wrongfully evicted from their homes and this could mean lawsuits and more for those tenants.
A tenant who was wrongfully evicted would need to go through the process of removing the eviction from their credit and rental report, and they may end up being able to sue their landlord.
Affordable housing is difficult to find in many parts of Arizona, and Bridges said she has clients who are living in hotels or motels, paying higher priced weekly rent. Tenants in similar situations could be entitled to getting those costs back from their landlord if the eviction was found to be improper.
However, there is often one fear that keeps many from going after their landlords: the cost of hiring an attorney. But Bridges said low-income tenants can get fee waivers and legal aid organizations provide free legal services.
“You’re not going to be injured for trying to assert your rights,” she said.
Eviction is a complicated process, and despite the moratorium on evictions in Arizona and the federal ban under the CARES Act, there are still evictions going on in the state.
Many of these hearings are going on virtually, and Bridges also has advice on how to handle these if you end up still being a part of one.
Bridges said that as soon as people find out about an eviction action, they should call the court and find out how to file documentation.
Although the courts have been trying to streamline the process, courts across the state have still had some variances on how they are proceeding with cases, Bridges said.
Some will require documentation 24 hours ahead of a case and some may be fine with presenting it during digital testimony.
“It’s really a court-to-court process right now,” Bridges said. “As soon as you get your eviction complaint, go to the website and call the court and say, ‘How do I submit these documents so the judge will see them?’”
The last thing you want to have happen is to have your COVID-19 exemption paperwork be dismissed because it needed to be filed ahead of time, Bridges said.
Bridges’s group usually only helps lower income people, but right now is helping all tenants..
For more information on rental assistance visit: https://housing.az.gov/general-public/eviction-prevention-assistance