Pima County takes reins of rent assistance program as Tucson drops out
Arizona state funding for city's help for tenants is running out
Pima County's role in helping people stay in their homes is about to get a lot bigger.
The city of Tucson and the Community Investment Corporation – one of the main funding distributors of the joint Eviction Prevention Program between the city and the county – have decided to wind down their involvement with the program after their funding from Arizona's Department of Economic Security runs out.
The shift leaves Pima County in charge of providing assistance to a backlog of thousands of pending applications for housing assistance through its Community Assistance Division as other cases continue to pour in, Daniel Sullivan, director of the county's Community and Workforce Development Department, told the Board of Supervisors on June 21.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the partnership between Pima County, Tucson and the Community Investment Corporation in the Eviction Prevention Program have helped thousands of local families with utility and rental assistance.
With the help of about a dozen community nonprofit partners and social service agencies, the program – which has collected about 40,000 applications and counting – has helped distribute more than $64 million in rental and utility assistance to more than 12,300 households in Tucson and Pima County.
But during the June 21 supervisors meeting, Sullivan announced those partnerships would soon be changing.
"Since the city of Tucson and its main subrecipient CIC have decided not to continue on with the program, they found that they had 3,500 cases that they just couldn't get to," Sullivan told supervisors.
"They had been doing almost completely the city of Tucson, and we had been doing outside the city limits, but we thought it was the right thing to do to transition those cases over to us, so right now we are working through that," he said.
Both the program and this transition have not been without its challenges.
"Throughout the country, you are seeing jurisdictions close these programs down as they run out of funds because it's been difficult…it's difficult money to administer, and changes from the treasury have happened often," Sullivan said.
"But we think it's important, when there's money available, that we apply for it and try to get it so we can get it out to tenants and to landlords as quickly as possible," he said.
Representatives from CIC did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Since its inception in 2020, the EPP has been upheld as a model for how local governments can distribute pandemic rental assistance quickly and efficiently.
But the recent influx of cases has been overwhelming for the current staff, both physically and emotionally, Sullivan said.
Previously, a typical EPP applicant could see their case handled by a case manager and closed out in about one day. Now, they're averaging about two weeks or more, largely because of the waitlist of cases still awaiting case managers.
"Some of the cases that we've seen that were transferred over to us date back to January, and they have sort of skewed our numbers right now," he said.
But they have made some progress – of the 3,500 that came from the city's backlog, Sullivan said they've already assigned more than 1,600 to case managers as of June 21.
"Right now, we're trying to get to the folks who have been there the longest as we are also continuing to get new people applying for assistance," he said.
Supervisors Rex Scott and Sharon Bronson noted their offices had also received a number of constituent complaints recently regarding EPP, ranging from issues with the website to long wait times.
Sullivan acknowledged there's room for improvement, adding that his department has set up a new call center to respond to questions more efficiently, as well as an "escalation team" to handle urgent calls for assistance from the community.
"It's a team of sort of ninjas, if you will, who are there for people who are about to become evicted, or in instances where we may see some red flags, and those folks have performed really valiantly so far," Sullivan said.
Moving forward, Sullivan's team also hopes to contract with other community-based agencies and organizations that may be displaced by CIC's departure from the program to handle the processing of applications.
Right now, however, one of Sullivan's main goals is to secure another $30 million from the Department of Economic Security in order to continue providing rental and utility assistance to Pima County residents "for as long as possible."
By Sullivan's estimate, DES has about $200 million from the federal government's Emergency Rental Assistance Program that has been unallocated and unspent. But it's unclear when the state will decide whether to send the extra money, or how large future disbursements to the county will be.
Until then, Bronson said the top priority should be to continue helping Pima County's most vulnerable, especially as the housing market and the economy tightens.
"If we're headed, as it appears we are, into a recession…and we already have an issue with people being homeless, we don't need to ensure that that gets worse. We need to make it better," Bronson said.
"I think what Pima County is doing is the right thing to do. I'm just a little appalled that the city is no longer a partner," she said.
This report was first published by the Green Valley News.