Landlord group says lawsuit over eviction moratorium is a “last step”




eviction

For the past four months, trade groups representing landlords and property owners have attempted to get additional state funds released for tenants and landlords but those monies have been slow to release. 

Now those same groups are suing to overturn the eviction moratorium imposed by Gov. Doug Ducey, which created a situation they deem “unsustainable.” However, tenant advocates say that landlords have already been evicting tenants and are able to receive money from evicted tenants.. 

“This was absolutely not an easy decision to make. I’d say it was the last step in the process,” Jake Hinman, Government Relations for one of the groups currently suing to overturn the eviction moratorium, the Arizona Multihousing Association said. “The AMA is not a litigious organization.”

The Arizona Multihousing Association and the Manufactured Housing Communities of Arizona filed the suit, alleging that Ducey’s order unconstitutionally overrules contracts that landlords have with tenants. 

Ducey issued a moratorium first in March, then extended it last month until Oct. 31. When he extended it, Ducey also created funds to provide financial assistance to landlords and property owners who hadn’t been able to collect rent from tenants.

The moratorium still allows for evictions to take place, but tenants cannot be removed from their residences if they qualify under certain COVID-19 exemptions. However, the process has proven to be tricky

“We’ve been patient. We’ve tried to work with policymakers to try to get more resources in the hands of renters,” Hinman said, adding that they’ve been working on trying to get more assistance for more than four months, including going to the federal levels. 

The Arizona Realtors Association shared similar frustrations with the behind-the-scenes work it’s done to try to shore up additional assistance for renters and landlords alike.

“We have spent untold hours along with the other stakeholders asking Governor Ducey and the governor’s office to heed our calls to properly fund and properly implement both landlord and tenant assistance programs so that evictions and foreclosures are not tomorrow’s reality,” Michelle Lind, CEO of the Arizona Realtors Association said. 

The Arizona Realtors Association is not part of the suit but has been working with the AMA and other groups that have been trying to get additional assistance released, Lind said. 

Ducey in March created a $5 million rent-assistance fund to help people avoid eviction, but it has been slow to distribute money. And much of the money remains unused: The Arizona Republic reported that only about $1.1 million has been sent to renters needing assistance.

Lind said the program has received more than $10 million worth of requests. Additionally, only 7 percent of the applications submitted to it have been approved, Lind said. 

“If the resources are available and got delivered to those in need, then there is no need for an eviction moratorium because the tenant will have the rental income and rental payments,” Lind said of Ducey’s executive order. 

However, some see it a bit differently. 

“It’s not that evictions ever stopped here,” said Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation at Community Legal Services

Because the eviction moratorium only delays eviction enforcements and only under certain circumstances, hundreds of evictions in Pima and Maricopa County have occured since Ducey’s order went into effect . Additionally, it was recently found that many landlords were violating the federal CARES Act and evicting certain tenants illegally.

Bridges said she’s also heard multiple stories of landlords evicting tenants despite getting rental assistance funds and of landlords not understanding or applying improperly to the landlord assistance program. 

“From my perspective we have tenants who are still being evicted and landlords are still able to receive judgments against tenants,” Bridges said,adding, “I do understand that the landlords are frustrated for not getting that money.” 

Longtime tenant advocate Ken Volk of Arizona Tenant Advocates said he worries about the precedent that would be set if the courts strike down Ducey’s eviction moratorium, though he’s skeptical that will happen.

“I’d be hard pressed to see the (Arizona) Supreme Court trimming his wings (Ducey) on his bureaucratic prerogatives,” Volk said.

Ducey had strong words for the groups that are suing to overturn his eviction moratorium.

“My reaction is, get in line,” Ducey told reporters at a press conference on Thursday. “We’re doing everything we can to protect people in this state, to protect the most vulnerable through a public health emergency and an economic disruption. And we’ll continue to do that.”

When pressed as to why the state has been slow to distribute $90 million that has been allocated for  rental assistance , Ducey compared it to how the state has been conducting COVID testing, saying people simply haven’t been taking advantage of the program. 

“We have capacity. We haven’t had the demand. Possibly we need to do a better job communicating that $90 million is available,” Ducey said. 

Ducey also emphasized that the state has been dispersing more money in the “last several months in the history of the state.” 

Hinman said he wasn’t in any position to say if the governor releasing more funds would sway the AMA from seeking to strike down the executive order and wasn’t sure if there was a version of a moratorium that it could support. 

“We’ve tried to remain quiet during this period and we’ve asked rental owners for their patience and many rental owners across the state have done extraordinary things,” Hinman said. “We are a bit unique as we have been deemed an essential business and we have been told to remain open and we have been told to remain open without income.” 

Lind echoed those sentiments, saying that if more rental assistance and landlord assistance was available then no moratorium would be needed at all. 

“Many (landlords) are struggling in the same way that tenants are right now,” Lind said. “Many rely heavily on the rental income to fund their retirement.”

However, for Volk the moratorium is about something bigger. 

“We cannot have these hundreds of thousands of renters out on the streets, contracting and transmitting the virus,” Volk said, adding that he believes that Ducey is well within his rights during a time of a public health crisis to make such an executive order. 

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.