Since March, most evictions in Arizona have been prevented because of state and federal rules enacted in response to the pandemic, but when the moratorium expires on June 30, thousands of Arizonans could be without a place to live. But no one — from the courts to the constables who are tasked with evicting tenants — knows just how many people will find themselves locked out of their homes.
“Once the moratorium is off, yeah, we are going to have a lot,” Pima County Constable Kristen Randall told the Arizona Mirror. “I feel like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs about how much of a problem this is going to be.”
Randall has been telling anyone who will listen about “an avalanche of evictions” coming June 30, when the federal prohibition on evictions expires. In the year since the pandemic began, landlords have continued to take tenants to court and win writs of restitution — essentially the legal permission to evict someone. And those writs of restitution, sometimes referred to as lock-out orders, have been piling up as moratoriums on evictions, first by Gov. Doug Ducey and then by Congress, prevented them from being enforced so that people weren’t suddenly homeless in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Despite what many may have thought, the state and federal moratoriums did not stop evictions: Evictions have continued throughout the country and across Arizona. In courts in Maricopa and Pima counties, eviction actions are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
What the moratoriums stopped was the enforcement of those lock-out orders, issued when a judge sides with a landlord in an eviction case. The moratoriums stopped constables from actually removing people from their residences, even if a court determined that an eviction was warranted.
In 2020 in Maricopa County, there were more than 11,000 writs of restitution filed, with 7,230 of them being filed between March and December. So far in 2021, there have been more than 1,000 filed, although the data is not entirely complete, according to Maricopa County Justice Courts spokesman Scott Davis.
This is because those 11,000 writs are the ones that were able to be served, meaning they were not covered by the moratoriums. Even that number is not a full accounting, as some of those could have been appealed by a tenant who later could have gotten an exemption from the writ, leaving their true eviction date to be determined.
“Well, everybody wants that number, and we don’t have a consistent way to track that,” Davis said about the total number of people waiting to be evicted and writs that have been issued. The courts don’t have a consistent way to track a writ once it leaves the courts and is in the hands of the constables, Davis said.
Additionally, it would require a change to court computer systems, additional staffing and time taken away from other legal duties that the courts have to undertake.
“Before the pandemic, this was never an issue,” Davis said. “We never had reason to wonder, ‘Was that writ ever served?’”
Because writs were never meant to be unenforced, there’s no way to search for them in the court system. And that means there’s no real way to know how many of those issued have been acted on and how many are waiting to be enforced, leaving constables in Maricopa County without a good idea of how many they’ll be handling come mid-summer.
“We just don’t have any idea of how to quantify it beyond what (the courts) can do,” Arrowhead Justice Precinct Constable Michael Branham told the Mirror, praising the work the courts and constables have been able to do with what resources that are available. “We’re certainly not through the worst of it yet.”
“We will be crazy, crazy busy,” Randall predicted.
Randall said Pima has about 600 writs in total, but what concerns her is the writs that haven’t been filed.
Large apartment complexes in her jurisdiction that would file 15 to 30 evictions a month pre-pandemic have stopped, instead opting to work with tenants. But she said some have started to compile lists of tenants so, come June, they’ll be “ready to go” for eviction filings.
These large apartment complexes are often owned by large corporations that own properties across the state, country and even across the world. These firms account for nearly 30% of all evictions in 2020 in Maricopa County, according to data analyzed by the Mirror that was collected by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
But writs are still being enforced and people are and have been being forced out of their homes at pre-pandemic levels.
A loophole gets wider
Many of the companies responsible for the largest number of evictions also have histories of issues with their properties or disputes with tenants. Additionally, these companies and other landlords appear to be trying to evict tenants at a higher rate using a loophole in the federal moratorium.
The moratorium does not protect a tenant if they are being evicted for a breach of contract. In the past, breach of contract was rare and generally reserved for things like criminal activity, Randall said. But now it’s being used more frequently.
“It’s a loophole that has gotten wider and wider in the last year,” Randall said, adding that she has seen tenants removed for not installing a smoke detector properly or calling a plumber twice to fix a clogged toilet, breaching their contracts with their landlords.
Some breaches have included having broken down cars in parking spots or cluttered patios.
“We all still do lockouts everyday,” Randall said, adding that more are becoming breach of contract evictions.
The lowest point Randal can remember was in April 2020, and each month since the numbers have continued to climb steadily.
In Maricopa, the data shows a sizable drop in evictions from February to May, but in June numbers began to rise and haven’t stopped since. A similar pattern was seen with writs.
Evictions increased by 33% from November to December, with December also seeing two record-breaking days for evictions: Twice in December, landlords were granted 200 evictions. On Christmas Eve, evictions were granted against 94 people in Maricopa County.
The sharpest increase in writs issued was in late summer, when they grew by 36% from August to September.
Clair Meyer, of Arizona Tenants Advocates & Association, a tenants rights group, said her organization has been seeing a different issue all together.
Each day Meyer gets around 200 phone calls from concerned tenants looking for help. Lately, she said, many have been calling about their landlords not wanting to renew their lease, sometimes after failing to evict them due to the CDC moratorium.
“There is nothing that they can do,” Meyer said. “Arizona does not regulate the reasoning behind a non-renewal notice.”
Non-renewal of a lease is not covered under the moratorium, and Meyer said it is unclear if it is landlords taking advantage of a loophole, tenants not understanding what is covered by the CDC moratorium or a mixture of the two. What she does know is she is getting more calls.
Normally, Meyer would get between 1 and 2 calls a week about non-renewal of lease issues. Now it’s 10 calls a day, and she estimates it’s been about a 40% increase in the past month “at least.”
“There is not any way to fight against a 30-day non-renewal notice,” Meyer said, adding that anyone who chooses to stay will get an eviction notice that will likely follow them for the rest of their renting life.
Branham, the Arrowhead constable, said that while the pandemic has created new challenges for the courts, constables, landlords and tenants, he and others have been impressed by the willingness of landlords and tenants to work together.
“You hate to find something positive in a pandemic,” Branham said, adding that he has seen better movement towards landlords and tenants learning to communicate better during the pandemic.
He also said that many other constables have seen a slow down in areas where they’d normally do 30 evictions a day are doing much less than that, though he noted that some areas — such as the Moon Valley precinct in north-central Phoenix and the Country Meadows precinct in the southwest Valley — have seen increases.
Branham cited additional rental assistance from the federal and state government as a boon to keeping people housed during the pandemic and said that constables over the last year have learned that “communication” is the key to keeping people housed.
Large corporate landlords lead in evictions
Some of the largest evictors in Maricopa County are companies based outside Arizona. Western Wealth Capital, based out of North Vancouver, British Columbia, has evicted the most of any corporate landlord in Maricopa County, with more than 700 evictions from March 2020 to February 2021, according to data from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
The company boasts 75 multifamily properties and $2.3 billion in real estate transactions since the company’s inception and is the second largest multi-family landlord in the Greater Phoenix area.
Tides Equities LLC is the second largest evictor in Maricopa County, having been awarded 555 evictions from March 2020 to February 2021.
The evictions by the top evictors is not always an indicator that someone was removed from their home. Evictions can also be appealed or settled between a tenant and a landlord, it is unclear how many of the 37,749 evictions filed in 2020 resulted in a writ of restitution.
“I think it is important that there is not only one way of looking at the upcoming eviction crisis,” Randall said, saying that there is a way to “alleviate some of the pain” for both landlords and tenants, otherwise we will be facing an “avalanche of evictions.”
For Branham, he said that come the end of June it will be “an all hands on deck process.”