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As pandemic ends, so does rent aid, leaving uncertain future for Pima County tenants

Hikes in rents & evictions will mean spikes in number of homeless people in Tucson, experts say

Tenants in Pima County are struggling to afford housing as landlords raise rents and home prices increase, but their situation is expected to get even more difficult as both the county and city of Tucson start to see the bottom of federal COVID relief packages that have supported local rental assistance programs.

The pandemic appears to be winding down, at least in Southern Arizona, as the number of new COVID-19 cases drops and the county and city begin easing their last local mask mandates. The end of the pandemic also means the end of the windfall in rental assistance funded largely by the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, both federal stimulus bills meant to alleviate economic stress endured over last two years.

Pima County and Tucson have been running the Eviction Prevention Program since August, starting it with more than $35 million left over from an original $56 million in federal funds. They recently received another $22 million in late February, and according to the program’s website, the city and county have helped more than 10,000 tenants pay rent and utilities, with almost $51 million paid in rental assistance and $4.9 million in utilities assistance.

Tucson will run out of its half of the $22 million by June, housing officials said, and once they do, the city will end their part in the program, said Terry Galligan, deputy director of Tucson’s Housing and Community Development Department. Pima County has about $8 million in rental assistance left, officials said, and have applied for another $6 million they’re expecting to receive soon.

The county has been providing rental and utility assistance for almost 30 years, mostly through their Community Action Agency, and Tucson will continue to work with the county, Galligan said. However, the city won’t be able to provide rental and utility assistance directly to residents.

The county’s rental assistance will last until 2023, said Daniel Sullivan, director of Community Workforce and Development, and they’ll continue to support critical services like Emergency Eviction Legal Services, a free legal resource for low-income residents facing eviction. In the short term, they’ll lease hotel rooms for homeless shelters and host career fairs.

Pima County administration has also charged Sullivan and his department with looking into the creation of an affordable housing task force to bring together stakeholders in the region and come up with “action-oriented” recommendations for short and long-term housing solutions, Sullivan said. They’re expected to deliver those recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in May.

In the meantime, though, tenants are being priced out of their homes, local community workers said. Many landlords are either hiking rents at the end of a lease or refusing to work with tenants they’re evicting who are seeking rental assistance from the city and county so they can vacant the units and then raise rent.

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This is what happened to one Tucson woman who talked to the Sentinel but asked not be identified because of her immigration status. Originally from Tabasco, a state in southern Mexico, she lived in the same unit in Tucson for more than seven years with her three children after her partner left her a year earlier. She got sick with COVID-19 last September and was unable to work cleaning houses for a week, which put her behind on rent.

Before she was handed an eviction notice, she sought rental assistance from the Eviction Prevention Program by phone as soon as she recovered, but the application is still open and unfinished because it asked for documents from her landlord, who had already told her that she would rather evict her.

“The landlord didn’t want to help me because she didn’t want any problems,” she said, speaking to the Tucson Sentinel in Spanish. “That's what she would tell me…I couldn’t do anything because she didn’t want to get involved in any kind of assistance.”

At this point, the landlord had also raised rent by $150 from what she had been paying before. The tenant only works three days a week because of her immigration status and had to get help from her 18-year-old daughter to pay rent. Now she, her daughter and her 14-year-old and 11-year-old children live with a friend in a two-bedroom, one-bath house.

Her immigration status also worried her a bit when applying for rental assistance, saying “it worried me a bit because of the landlord,” and her understanding was “I’m not going to give her any problems, and she won't give me any problems,”

She’s been looking to move into a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Tucson, but the rent for that would be too high, she said. Rents are about $1,900, far out of her price range, she said. She’s comfortable where she is now, living with her friend, she said, but only for the time being.

‘No incentive’ to help

A federal eviction moratorium was put in place in September 2020 and was repeatedly extended until the Supreme Court struck it down in August. During that time, landlords weren’t able to evict tenants for non-payment, the most common reason for eviction, if the inability to pay rent was caused by the pandemic.

This gave landlords some incentive to work with tenants to apply for assistance because there were no other options for payment, Wendy Ascher, a lawyer with Southern Arizona Legal Aid and a member of the Tucson Commission on Equitable Housing and Development, told the Sentinel. The issue of people unable to pay their rent though, she said, “has continued long past the time when the moratorium lapsed.”

“Then what we saw was there were some landlords who were unwilling to participate, or either they participated before and they thought it was an intrusion, they thought it was a lot of work and they really didn’t want to get involved or some were just unwilling to wait,” she said. “They were seeing people who applied for rental assistance in November or December but they weren’t assigned a case manager until March or April (before the Eviction Prevention Program).”

Ascher and Southern Arizona Legal Aid’s main recourse for tenants facing eviction has been to point them towards the Eviction Prevention Program, but landlords aren’t obligated to work with tenants who apply for the program. They are required to accept payment should a tenant come up with it. Still, “if a landlord doesn’t want to cooperate, nothing can be done,” Ascher said.

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Not all landlords are unwilling to work with tenants, said Andy Flagg, a lawyer in charge of the county’s EELS program. The county has a high caseload of tenants and landlords working together to receive rental assistance and cover late rents, as many as 10 or more a day, Flagg said.

Some landlords will have their court case filed and have an eviction notice ready, and hold off on serving it until the tenant gets assistance, but, repeating Ascher’s point, Flagg said that “regardless of whether the person has applied or not, if the landlord is not willing to accept it, it’s not going to go through.”

Roxanne Valenzuela, a case worker from Casa Maria, sees landlords who are reluctant to work with tenants for the same reasons Ascher brought up. Some landlords don’t want to be in the system, and some don’t want to claim that money on their taxes, Valenzuela said.

“Landlords are a lot less patient right now,” she said. “When there was a moratorium in place, (evictions) were less likely, but now, as landlords see that they can capitalize on this market, they are pressuring and evicting people a lot more now.”

Applying for rental assistance is difficult and stressful for many tenants facing eviction, Valenzuela said. A lot of the people who she helps “are not resourceful, are not tech-savvy, or just don’t have the information they need,” and they’re applying at a “very stressful time, and they’re getting pressured by their landlord and they keep getting utility bills that keep piling up and they can’t catch up.”

“Everyday we talk to people who are in desperate need of assistance,” Valenzuela said.

It’s clear, Ascher said, that there’s already a problem that will get worse as the “windfall” in rental assistance runs out. Valenzuela, who was the case worker for the undocumented woman mentioned earlier, said she’s seeing signs that homelessness in Tucson getting worse, such as more families with children who are on the street begging.

“It’s really bad right now,” Valenzuela said. “We need different options, not just putting a band-aid on this and not just putting in funds to keep people in their houses but building more housing and looking at policies that will secure affordable housing.”

One of the reasons more tenants are being priced out of their homes, Valenzuela and Ascher said, is investors with deep pockets are developing expensive housing in Tucson. At SALA, Ascher said, they’re hearing from tenants that landlords are renovating units and then hike the rent.

“We’ve seen a number of cases where the landlord wants people out, not so much to raise the rent, but they wanted to do renovations then they could raise the rent,” Ascher said. “We had one place recently where the client, the tenant, was told that the landlord wanted to get everybody out because they wanted to knock it all down and turn it into condos.”

The unwillingness of landlords to wait, the long waiting periods for rental assistance and motivations for landlords to raise rents are putting a lot of pressure on tenants right now, Ascher said.

“There are a lot of things that are working against tenants,” she said. “The clients that we see are getting pushed out of the market,” adding that she’s hearing from a lot of people, not just clients, that they're choosing simply to leave Southern Arizona because it’s too expensive.

Developers coming from outside the community have less incentive to create stable housing, Ascher said, especially as occupancy rates continue to increase, allowing landlords and developers to continue profiting once they raise rents.

“These folks coming from outside the community and purchasing property like we’ve seen, they have no incentive to look out for the community,” she said. “Most landlords don’t have a huge incentive, but if they also have no ties to the community, what do they care?”

A couple of tenants that Valenzuela was helping received a letter while they were waiting for assistance that told them their apartment complex had been sold and that the new owners wouldn’t renew their lease.

“It wasn’t an eviction per se,” Valenzuela said. “It just took too long, and they ended up left homeless.”

What happens next?

In the county’s entire time providing rental assistance, they’ve been operating in “an environment of scarcity,” Sullivan said, but he’s aware that the increased need for rental assistance is what the county will continue to see in 2023.

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“The amount of funds that we have seen through the pandemic and through federal legislation have given us the resources to meet the normal needs of the community,” he said. “At times (the community’s need) was heightened because of the pandemic, but this really is what we’ll continue to see.”

The county is trying to plan for what they’ll see after all their ERAP funds run out. The Affordable Housing Task Force, which includes local non-profits, is taking care of part of that planning, but there is still an uncertainty about how the county and its private and public partners will tackle a heightened need with less money.

A silver lining to the pandemic, Sullivan said, was the increased rental assistance and shared need across the metro area led to a consolidation of eviction prevention resources that also streamline the rental assistance application process.

“We were able to find a streamlined way of getting (assistance) out and that is one wonderful consequence of everything that we’ve gone through,” Sullivan said. “We may not have the amount of resources that we need, but we will have a much better process moving forward.”

The number one priority of the Community and Workforce Development Department, Sullivan said, is planning for the transition once they’re on their own after Tucson drops out of the eviction program. He’s confident that the county is prepared to continue providing “the level of service and urgency and pace that we’ve been able to do since the beginning.”

“Not only do we have 30 years of experience, but we have dedicated professionals who do this with partners in the community, and we really have been given wonderful resources from the Board of Supervisors and county administration to ensure that this program is successful,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to plan to the tee on so that people in the community don’t notice it, so that it’s a seamless transition.”

Nothing should change on the applicant’s end in terms of how to apply for rental assistance, he said. Tenants will still be able to seek help through the same channels that are available now, and the county will hire more staff members and contract with more community partners to “beef up” their capacity, he said.

The money that the county and the city had for rental assistance during the pandemic was a huge boost from what received in normal years, Sullivan and Flagg said. “Ballpark, we would administer $3-5 million a year” before the pandemic, Flagg said. Sullivan agreed, saying just the $22 million they received this year is a lot and that before the pandemic the entire county, including the cities, had about $10 million in rental assistance, not including utility assistance.

The county relied on more than just federal funds for their Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds. Sullivan described ERAP funds as a “cocktail,” with money coming from the state and private sources too.

“There’s a wide array of funding sources. It’s not just federal money, it’s largely federal money, but there’s also the utility companies, who have their own funding, and we have a little bit of county general fund too,” Flagg said.

The county will continue to seek out those other sources besides Washington, D.C., Sullivan said, and they’re already applying for funding from the Arizona Department of Economic Security that will go into next year.

“We’re going to ask for as much money from DES as we can get,” he said. “And we’re going to get it out as quickly as we can to ensure people don’t wind up in the streets or living in their cars or in other untenable situations.”

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Sullivan shares Ascher and Valenzuela’s concerns, he said. Rents have doubled in some places across the community recently, he said, so “we’re taking it very seriously.”

There will be an intimidating challenge in 2023, he said, for the county to meet it, they’ll have to “hope for best, but plan for the absolute worst.”

Even though the city will run out of rental assistance, they do have long-term solutions in mind. One of the main tasks of the Tucson Commission on Equitable Housing and Development, which includes Ascher as a non-voting member, is to come up with a plan for creating a “north-south transit corridor,” a 15-mile long area identified for city investment in affordable housing located near public transportation routes.

Like Valenzuela, who said that there needs to be more than just a “band-aid” for this problem, Ascher agrees there needs to be more long-term solutions, but rental assistance is an important immediate solution to homelessness and evictions as it helps keep people off the street.

“I think it’s really helpful to have a long-term view and a long-term of steps to take, but that doesn’t answer what’s happening to tomorrow,” she said. “Homeless is a very complicated issue, and it doesn’t become and easier issue when there are more people who are homeless,”

“Every little bit is helpful,” Ascher said, and what’s going to work best is offering long-term and short-term solutions in tandem.

The undocument women now living with her friend said she hasn’t thought of leaving Southern Arizona because this is where her kids grew up. She’s fine now, she said, but it's been a stressful experience dealing with the eviction and applying for rental assistance. Casa Maria was helpful with the application, but now she feels unprotected.

“Now I know that it's stressful and that when we get sick, in reality, we won’t be able to get help,” she said. “No one’s got our backs.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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