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Bill aims to study evictions, which are on the rise in Arizona

As Arizona continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the number of eviction filings has also been steadily increasing, and lawmakers are looking to create a study committee to look into how the courts and laws can better help both tenants and landlords.

Eviction filings reached their lowest point in Phoenix in May following an eviction moratorium issued by Gov. Doug Ducey, with only 1,459 evictions being filed in court, according to data from Eviction Lab. That is a 71% decrease from the previous year; just a month later, Arizona would be hit with its first major spike in COVID cases.

Since May, the number of eviction filings has increased by 163%.

“We have a building crisis we are looking at with evictions,” Sen. Kirsten Engel told Arizona Mirror.

Engel is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1039, which would create a study committee on statewide eviction prevention and housing affordability.

Ducey first issued an eviction moratorium in March 2020, then extended it until Oct. 31. When he extended it, Ducey also set aside money for financial assistance to landlords and property owners who hadn’t been able to collect rent from tenants.

The moratorium still allowed for evictions to take place, but tenants couldn’t be removed from their residences if they qualified under certain COVID-19 exemptions. However, the process proved to be tricky.

Federal protections have been in place to protect tenants from eviction who have faced hardship due to COVID and have been extended to Jan. 31, but there have been no additional statewide actions. Additionally, some landlords have been evicting tenants in violation of those federal protections.

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“The current issues need to be part of that discussion,” Engel said of the study committee, which would create a bipartisan committee of lawmakers, constables, judges, housing advocates to propose eviction and housing related legislation for 2022.

The committee would look into how to reduce eviction filings and “mitigate the costs, both financial and personal, to tenants and to landlords, attributable to the state’s current eviction process.” The committee would also review policies, statutes and court processes to guide possible future legislation.

“The implications for COVID for evictions is that it is going to last a while, so that will be important to fold that in,” Engel said.

Data from Eviction Lab shows that areas that are seeing the highest number of eviction filings are also some of the hardest hit by COVID.

A single Census tract in South Phoenix, has seen a 208% increase in eviction filings. Its accompanying zip code, 85009, has seen over 7,500 cases of COVID, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. More than a quarter of those living in the area also live below in poverty, a common thread with those impacted the most by COVID.

Engel is hopeful that the bill will get through the process and feels that there is bi-partisan support for the issue of evictions and affordable housing.

“We have heard from the landlords, they have been quite vocal about the need for rental assistance and mortgage assistance,” Engel said, saying that she feels there won’t be resistance from landlord focused groups. “So, from the business side, we are hearing cries of help, but of course we are also hearing that from the tenants.”

But the study committee is not the only approach to the issue.

Engel is also the sponsor of a bill that would extend the notice on evictions from five days to 15 and a co-sponsor on another that would add more money into the state’s Housing Trust Fund.

SB1039 has been assigned to the Senate Commerce Committee but has not been scheduled for a hearing.

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This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Experts say signs like this one could become more common as state and national moratoriums on evictions in the face of COVID-19 are lifted.