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Only 5% of people seeking state pandemic aid to avoid eviction have been helped

By: - June 3, 2020 8:37 am

Public domain image via Pixabay

In 60 days, only 5% of the Arizona renters who have turned to the state for help paying rent during the COVID-19 pandemic have received aid from the $5 million program that Gov. Doug Ducey created, according to the Arizona Department of Housing. 

Agency spokeswoman Jannelle Johnsen said 654 households have been approved for the Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance Program as of May 28. That’s out of 14,321 people who applied, Johnsen said. 

About 18% of those approvals came in the 10 days prior to May 28; on May 18, only 538 applications had been approved for rental aid

In all of Maricopa County — excluding Glendale, Mesa and Phoenix — 127 renters were approved for aid, 1,041 were denied or withdrawn and $87,528 was distributed in state rental assistance as of May 31, county spokesman Fields Moseley said in an email Tuesday.

The Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance program set aside $5 million in state funds to help struggling residents pay their rent because of a substantial loss of income due to COVID-19. Renters apply through the ADH website and, depending on where the person lives, applications are administered by 11 public and private groups called Community Action Agencies

“Decisions have been made on 27 percent of the total 14,321 submitted requests and 10,450 applications are awaiting review by the local Community Action Agencies,” Johnsen said in a May 29 email. 

The landlords of the renters approved for Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance Program received a total of $638,276 in state aid, with an average payout of $976 per application, as of May 28, she said. 

“The Department is still accepting applications for the COVID-19 Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance program,” Johnsen said. 

The program offers up to $2,000 a month for renters who meet certain income requirements and have no financial means, like savings, to pay their landlords. 

Two state lawmakers, Reps. Andrés Cano and Kristen Engel, both Democrats from Tucson, have called on ADHS to streamline the “cumbersome application process” for the program so eligible renters can benefit more quickly. 

“The rental assistance program was supposed to help tenants pay rent and landlords to stay in business. But it hasn’t worked out that way,” Engel said in a press release. “Tenants have been caught in a Kafkaesque process of needing to supply local housing agencies with piles of paperwork just to qualify for this emergency assistance.”

What to know about evictions in Arizona during the COVID-19 pandemic

The eviction process starts with the landlord-tenant relationship. It is recommended those who find themselves in an eviction process start talking to their landlord right away. 

Landlords are required to give tenants a five-day notice to pay what they owe. It’s during that time that tenants should bring up any possible COVID-19 exemptions they may have. Many tenants use a document on the Arizona Courts website as a basis for their initial letter to their landlords.

“The landlord might then put the process on hold, or might continue with filing the eviction suit on the sixth day – it is the landlord’s choice here,” said Davis. 

An executive order from Ducey signed in March delays evictions for renters affected by COVID-19. Ducey’s order doesn’t stop evictions, it just delays them for certain people under certain circumstances. 

“The Governor’s Executive Order, 2020-14, gives a constable, not a judge, the power to delay an eviction,” Davis said. “This leads to a lot of confusion for tenants when they get the eviction note. They think they can simply go to court, say they were affected by COVID, and the eviction will be canceled. This is wrong.”

Constables make determinations when serving what is called a writ of restitution. If a tenant brings up the issues with the constable of why they believe an eviction would negatively affect them due to COVID-19, Ducey’s executive order allows the constable to decide whether to delay the eviction. 

Constables already had authority to delay evictions for a few days, but with the executive order, they now can delay evictions until July. But constables don’t have a final say in eviction cases. 

Landlords and their attorneys can still deny the delay of eviction and take the case before a judge.

“The biggest misconception is that evictions aren’t going through,” Pima County Constable Joe Ferguson said. “It’s so much more complicated than that. … Obviously, with the (executive order), everything is uncommon right now.”

Tenants undergoing an eviction process should look out for letters or notices to appear in court, and prepare to make their case. A Morrison Institute study of Maricopa County Courts found that less than 20% of tenants facing eviction appear in court

And things often aren’t better for those who do appear in court, according to Ferguson.

“If the tenants show up, it’s still the tenant facing off against the lawyer,” he said. 

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy contributed to this report.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.