More than 11,000 Arizona renters have sought emergency rental aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the state has given money to fewer than 550 people, and spent barely 10% of the $5 million set aside to help renters avoid eviction.

As of May 18 — 50 days after the Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance program launched — 538 households had been approved for the aid, said Arizona Department of Housing spokeswoman Janelle Johnsen.

In all of Maricopa County — excluding Glendale, Mesa and Phoenix — 35 renters were approved for aid as of May 11, said county spokesman Fields Mosley. Another 129 applicants were “pending final quality assurance review” for the program, he said. Phoenix had approved 99 applications for rental aid as of May 18, said city spokeswoman Tamra Ingersoll.

Census estimates from 2018 show there are about 900,000 households in Arizona that are renter-occupied, and about 590,000 of those are in Maricopa County.

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.

Those agencies entered into contracts with the state that total $3 million, Johnsen said.

The landlords of the renters approved for Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance Program received a total of $523,011 in state aid, with an average payout of $972 per application, as of May 18, Johnsen said.

That amounts to about 10.5% of the money that Gov. Doug Ducey ordered be used to help renters avoid eviction during the pandemic.

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.

According to data shared by Tara Jeffcoat, a senior research analyst with commercial real estate data firm Yardi Matrix, the average apartment rent Phoenix in April was $1,134; in Glendale it was $1,040; in Mesa it was $1,099; for Scottsdale it was $1,574; and in Tempe it was $1,420.

While ADH has been slow in providing information on whether renters are benefiting from the promised aid, Johnsen said people are still encouraged to apply for rental assistance funds.

“We are seeing strong interest in the program, but we are asking everyone seeking assistance to send in their supporting documentation, like a copy of their lease, bank statement and driver’s license/state ID, and ensure all the fields in their application are complete,” she said.

About 27% of the almost 11,000 applications submitted by May 8 had complete documentation, Johnsen said.

Maricopa County: State aid will cover 500 renters by June

Mosley, the Maricopa County spokesman, said that more than 3,800 renters in the county had applied for state rental assistance as of May 11. Applicants in Glendale, Mesa and Phoenix are not included in the county’s numbers since other agencies are administering the program for those cities.

The state rental assistance program set aside $550,000 for Maricopa County.

“The goal of Maricopa County Human Services Department is to approve 500 applicants by June 1st,” Mosley said in an email.

Meanwhile, evictions are still taking place.

Between March 24 and April 30, eviction actions filed in Maricopa County Justice Court totaled 2,236, according court spokesman Scott Davis.

Like many other social services that are receiving a large influx of people seeking assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mosley said the county has had to add staff to its Human Services Department to process applications.

“Normally, Human Services processed about 300 rental assistance payments per year through 12 different non-profit community action groups,” he said. “To process the applications for this eviction prevention effort, Human Services pulled approximately 25 full-time employees from other places in the department to handle the volume.”

‘If I didn’t have any family or friends, I’d be homeless’

In Mesa, Kristina Bowles rents an apartment, where she lives alone.

Bowles lost her part-time office job doing logistics work on March 7. She still had her temporary job at a bank, but worked only for one or two days a week all month because she was sick, she said.

With the loss of income, Bowles thought she could lean on the state’s COVID-19 rental assistance program touted by Ducey as a form of relief.

She applied for rental aid on March 31. She trusted the aid will come in time to cover her April rent.

The next day, Ducey said on Twitter he expects no one to face eviction.

Eight days later, the management company at Bowles’s apartment complex told her in an email to look out for a “Notice to Vacate Due to Non-Payment.”

She said that confused her.

“I have applied for state funds, provided by Governor Ducey,” she responded. “I am waiting on a response from them. I am not sure of what other details you need to understand that I don’t have the funds to pay rent.”

Initially, Bowles was directed to a community group in Glendale for help with her rental aid application. Later, she was referred to Mesa Community Action Program, A New Leaf.

Eventually, family members lent her money to cover the $1,000 she owed for rent in April, she said.

Bowles said she called and sent emails to the Mesa agency, but didn’t get helpful answers. She lost trust in the competency of the agency when they repeatedly asked her to send bank statements, and she had privacy concerns.

“There is no comfort or peace from this whole process,” Bowles said.

She returned to work the last week of April, and was able to pay May rent in time, she said.

“But that doesn’t help when you’re also behind on phone bills, wifi and car insurance,” Bowles said.

On Monday, A New Leaf called her. They told Bowles rental aid funds from the state “were not available until last week.”

She asked them to remove her from the program.

“It’s a waste of time,” Bowles said. “If I didn’t have family or friends, I’d be homeless.”

Phoenix: Dept. of Housing slow in releasing promised funds

In Phoenix, more than 4,000 renters have applied for the state rental assistance program, Ingersoll, the city spokeswoman, said.

She explained the city hasn’t been able to administer assistance quickly because it’s waiting on the state to make the funds available.

“As of Friday, we only have received an initial $150,000 from the state, so we have only allocated those funds with other applicants ready to process once the state releases the rest of the funds to us,” Ingersoll said.

Johnsen, the state housing department spokeswoman, said rental assistance funds are distributed to most of the 11 community agencies as reimbursements.

Ingersoll said that’s not the case in Phoenix.

“The state agreed to and signed a contract that they would give us the monies and we would not front-load the payments because the existing federal funding sources in (the city’s Human Services Department) can not be altered or used that way, and we are at the end of the fiscal year, so there isn’t general fund (money) to cover those payments,” she said.

Three agencies — the ones covering Phoenix, Mesa and Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, and Santa Cruz counties — were the only ones to request advance payments, Johnsen said.

She said A New Leaf, the Mesa agency, received $90,000 in advance funds on April 24; South Eastern Arizona Community Action Program got $15,000 in advance pay on April 28; and Phoenix received $150,000 in advance funds on May 5.

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,” Maricopa County Justice Court spokesman Scott Davis said.

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 have the authority to make a determination 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. However, constables are having their determinations challenged in court.

Attorneys can challenge a constable’s determination not to evict a tenant, but a constable cannot challenge a judge’s determination to agree with a landlord’s attorney to evict a tenant.

“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.”

Ferguson said that multiple constables in Pima County have received complaints by attorneys for not doing evictions, and in at least one case, attorneys are trying to hold a constable in contempt of court for giving a tenant a COVID-19 exemption.

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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