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$36M in Tucson & Pima rent help to get out 'quickly' during 60-day eviction halt

There is still nearly $36 million in emergency rental assistance available in the Tucson area, and on Friday local leaders committed to distributing it quickly during the 60-day extension of the eviction moratorium.

A streamlined system will make it easier to get funds into the hands of pressured tenants and landlords, they said at a press conference at the Pima County Housing Center.

There is still about $35.5 million remaining of the almost $57 million in federal funds allocated for rental assistance during the pandemic through the joint city of Tucson/Pima County Eviction Prevention Program. Officials, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva, City Manager Mike Ortega and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, emphasized the importance of getting the remaining money out during the two-month window opened by the CDC's last-minute extension of the national halt on evictions.

Ortega said the city, county and Community Investment Corporation, the community nonprofit administering the program, are “quickly and expeditiously” delivering rental assistance and having success because of “leadership through partnership.”

The county court handling many cases is also encouraging landlords and tenants to work things out, including applying for assistance, rather than pushing for eviction orders.

The program manager for Pima County's Sullivan Jackson Employment Center, Daniel Sullivan, said “what we have is unity, partnership, and that’s what made us successful.” The program is client-centric and set to be consistent, he said.

Daitra Small, a Tucson resident who was facing eviction, said that getting rental assistance through the program was easy and transparent.

“I had a great case worker that did a phenomenal job, the whole team did, as far as contacting me and staying on my case and informing me what was going on, contacting the landlords and letting them know where I stood,” she said. “That relieved a lot of my anxiety, a lot of my stress, a lot of my everything, my frustration, everything.”

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Small, who struggles to walk and needs a scooter, said the pandemic put her in a situation where she had to choose between spending on her housing or her health, and she chose health, continuing instead to pay medical bills. After missing a rent payment, Smalls said that she received a five-day notice to pay rent or be evicted.

She had never heard of the Eviction Prevention Program, she said, and it was her daughter who found it through research. Once she applied, it took five to six weeks for her landlord to receive payments to cover overdue rent that she wouldn’t have to pay back. She said once she applied, all she needed was her information and some patience.

Smalls said that she never received her $1,400 in stimulus money and when she contacted the IRS, they couldn’t help her. She said her caseworker from the Eviction Prevention Program, by contrast, made her feel like he was only working on her case and comfortably put her back in a secure financial situation, even covering her utilities.

Looking ahead, Smalls said “I’m going to be OK. I just hope everybody else gets the chance and the opportunity that I got.”

She said that she knows people who are facing eviction now, and who had never heard of the program until she told them about it. If it weren’t for her daughter finding out about the program, Smalls said she would have had to move in with family members who don’t have a handicap-accessible house and whom she would hate to burden.

“I don’t want to depend on people to do things for me. (The program) made my life so much better because now I can have my independence,” she said. “I’m going to keep my independence and my apartment.”

Huckelberry said the county and city “intend to spend every dime that we’re getting from the federal government” and then ask for more.

Ortega said that the Eviction Prevention Program is getting out about $1.6 million per week and has processed 4,000 applications, totaling $21 million in rental assistance already provided locally.

“It’s a function of our ability to process quickly and expeditiously and as Congressman Grijalva said, not just giving it away, but actually going through the process to make sure that the need in the community is being addressed,” he said.

Sullivan said that the federal government allocated $56.8 million through two rounds of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding for Tucson and the county, $35.8 million of which is left to be disbursed.

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The new deadline for the eviction moratorium is October 3 after the CDC extended its ban on evictions for non-payment of rent to prevent the spread of COVID in areas with “high” or “substantial” rates of infection.

The federal government will take back the money left over from the two rounds of funding if it’s not spent, Sullivan said. The first round of funding has to be distributed by the end of September but the second round will be available until 2024, he said.

The $21 million that has been spent came from the first round of federal funding, which was about $32 million that the county and the city split, and Huckelberry said their goal was to spend at least 60 percent of that first round funding by September. “We’re going to keep spending,” he said. “I’d like to spend 100 percent by September then ask for more money.”

Both Huckelberry and Grijalva said that they also want to see the state of Arizona making direct allocations to the county and the city to have a long-term pool of rental assistance.

“The initial allocations to the city, to the county were important to make sure we had an immediate intervention,” Grijalva said. “But what concerns me is that if we have this model and immediate intervention is proven productive and good, the state administration — that isn’t utilizing the money, that doesn’t have the infrastructure in place — should do the same thing as the federal government: make a direct allocation and let that work continue.”

The Deputy Director of Pima County’s Emergency Eviction Legal Services, Andy Flagg, said that the Pima County specialty court directed to handle eviction cases has taken an interest in avoiding ordering tenants to leave their homes.

In addition to now having a “navigator” sit in court, to help inform tenants and landlords about rental assistance and the application process, Flagg said that Judge Ron Newman, a judge pro-tempore hearing eviction cases, is trying to encourage resolutions between landlords and tenants before approving eviction orders.

Ortega and Huckelberry said that what the city and county are doing in the Eviction Prevention Program should be repeated throughout the nation, in order to stem a wave of evictions. They also both said that the city and the county are considering options for housing people who ultimately are evicted to keep them sheltered, including hotel and motel vouchers.

The city of Tucson has its own eviction moratorium for the 2,000 housing units that they own. That halt was extended to the end of the 2021 last month by the City Council.

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

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Bennito L. Kelty/TucsonSentinel.com

Daitra Small said that the pandemic forced her to chose between paying rent and paying medical bills. When she chose the latter, she faced eviction until she applied to the Eviction Prevention Program put together by the city of Tucson, Pima County and community partners. She said that the program saved her, though she had never heard of it until she was behind on rent.

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