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Tucson ends eviction moratorium on city-owned housing as feds push for rent collection

Council commits to keep working with tenants who owe back rent

The Tucson City Council voted Tuesday to end a moratorium on evicting residents from city-owned housing on August 1. The move affects nearly 200 tenants who are behind on their rent, but only those who don't work with a county rental assistance program will be at risk of losing their apartments, officials said.

Residents who don't take part and remain behind on their rent will start incurring late fees or receive eviction notices. The move comes as federal officials are pushing Tucson and other cities to collect rents from those who live in public housing.

Rental assistance and payment plans should cover most of the $135,000 total shortfall in rent, which is owed by about 190 tenants in city housing, officials said.

The Council voted 6-1 at a study session on Tuesday to end the self-imposed block on evicting tenants from city-owned apartments. Officials will start delivering notices to those who are behind on their rent, but expects that the earliest possible evictions would happen in mid-September, Liz Morales, the city housing director, said at the meeting.

The lone vote in opposition came from South Side Councilman Richard Fimbres, who asked Morales if the city could extend the moratorium to December. The Department of Housing and Community Development needs to get rent collection numbers up “immediately,” however, Morales said. Federal funding for Tucson's housing program is dependent on maintaining a high percentage of rents collected, she said.

“Something’s going to be terrible for us,” Fimbres said. “Everybody’s rents are going up. We hear that food is costing more, gasoline is costing more. It’s not the right time” to end the city’s moratorium.

The city owns more than 1,500 public housing units, and roughly 190 tenants of those units owe more than $135,000 in unpaid rent, according to a city memo. The amount is relatively small, city officials said, but the Housing Department is feeling pressure from the federal government to step up rent collections, Morales said.

The housing program is 'in jeopardy'

Subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are a critical source of funding for Tucson’s public housing, Morales said, and the federal agency could stop delivering those funds if the city doesn't collect more rent from tenants. 

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“If we continue the moratorium, that could jeopardize the work that we’re doing with HUD and kind of put us under a spotlight,” Morales said. “We need to follow the (public housing policy), which does not allow moratoriums unless it comes down from the federal government.”

HUD is urging public housing authorities across the nation to collect more rents to keep those subsidies, but the agency has already “alerted (Tucson) that our collection rate is very low and is asking what actions we’re taking to improve that,” Morales said.

Although 79% of the city’s public housing residents are caught up on their rent, the benchmark set by HUD to continue subsidies is 98%. HUD requires that Tucson report rent collections monthly to determine if the city continues to qualify for regular subsidies, Morales said.

“HUD does look at (rent revenue) and will challenge us as to how we’re not doing our part to ensure that the rent is collected,” she said. “We need to bring those numbers up.”

Rent revenue from city housing is also one of the key funding sources for the program along with the subsidies and capital improvement funds from the city, Morales said.

“Those rents are critical for our operations,” she said. “For us to maintain units, rehab units, the rent revenue is a significant source for us.”

HUD won’t cover the city’s lost rent revenue, “so then the whole (housing) program is in jeopardy,” Morales said. “Our budgets definitely need that rent revenue to be effective.”

Help for tenants

The $135,000 owed to the city accumulated for more than a year from April 2020 through May 2022. Residents haven't been missing every month of rent in that period, Morales noted during the meeting, but many owe amounts that they'll have to pay back over a period of time.

Most of the city’s tenants are on time with their rents, Morales said.

“For me, it’s really an issue of fairness to ensure that we’re holding everyone to the same level of accountability,” she said.

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The rate of rent collection hasn’t been an issue in the past with housing authorities nationwide, Morales said, but it has become so recently.

Of the local tenants behind on their rent, 112 of them owe more than $1,000, with the average amount owed by those tenants at about $1,200. The city plans to pay off that $135,000 with funds from the local emergency rental assistance program, known as ERAP,  but that requires tenants to apply to have their individual debts paid off.

Taking part in ERAP will be easy for most residents, Morales said. "For most of our tenants, it'll just mean signing an application," she said.

Housing Department staff will “work with each and every” resident behind on rent to help them apply for ERAP or to come up with “very easy” payment plans that tenants can afford to catch up with late rents. Residents can determine what down payment is affordable for them to start a plan, Morales said, which may even mean waiving a down payment.

ERAP is now being run entirely by Pima County after the city pulled out of the program. The Community Investment Corporation, a local nonprofit, also withdrew from ERAP, but they still have funds they’re willing to put towards direct assistance, Morales said.

August, the first month without the moratorium, “will be about education,” Morales said, and letting city tenants know about the Council’s decision. Notices will go out to city housing residents in English and Spanish. The hope is to give residents “time to meet with staff to set up payment agreements for those who have balances on their rental accounts,” according to the city memo.

A 'non-responsive' handful

Around September 6 or 10, notices of late payment will start to go out, Morales said, which will tell residents they have 14 days to pay before being evicted. The Housing Department will use most of September contacting residents behind on rent to work with them, she said.

“Should we still have non-responsive people starting September 20, we’ll start issuing (eviction) notices,” Morales said Tuesday. “That gives us nearly two months to really make an effort again to engage and connect them to housing assistance.”

The Housing Department is committed to working with its tenants and not putting anyone out on the street, Morales said. The tenants really at risk of being evicted, she said, are the “handful” who haven't talked with housing staff about their late rent.

“We will not do any evictions for anyone that’s working with us or communicating with us,” Morales said. “A small number out of 1,500 residents are, for whatever reason, not communicating with us. This will give us the opportunity to show that we want to work with them, but if they don’t, there are consequences.”

The Council instituted an eviction moratorium for city-owned housing April 2020, which was early in the pandemic, but that was set to expire last December before the city's elected leaders extended it that month to June 30. The Council met for the first time since that deadline on Tuesday.

No late fees were applied to missed rent payments during the city’s moratorium. The $135,000 owed to the city is only missed rent payments.

The city also allowed residents who lost their income during the moratorium to either reduce their rent or live rent-free.

Prior to the pandemic, the city had “very few non-payment evictions,” Morales said, “because of how we operate. That’s never been a major reason for evictions for us.”

Federal moratorium

Congress first authorized a moratorium on evictions in public housing during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, when they passed CARES Act, the first round of federal COVID-19 relief. The CARES Act prohibited landlords from evicting for the nonpayment of rent and related fees from March 27, 2020 to July 24, 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control later issued a nationwide eviction moratorium for all housing in Sept. 2020 to slow the spread of COVID. The moratorium was only in place until the end of 2020, but the CDC extended it several times as the pandemic continued.

When the renewed federal moratorium lapsed at the end of July 2021, the CDC tried to extend it one more time for communities with “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission of COVID, but the Supreme County blocked it in late August.

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Ending their moratorium is hard for the Council to do, Mayor Regina Romero said, “because what we’ve been doing for the last two years is advocating for an eviction moratorium within our own housing units.”

“It seems counterintuitive and counterproductive to lift the moratorium, even though the federal government has lifted theirs,” Romero said.

Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik thanked Morales for the sensitivity she brought to the issue of restarting city evictions to appease HUD, saying “Liz’s department is not in the business of evicting people, just the opposite, and you’re doing a great job.”

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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