Defeating despair: Pima constable's fight against growing eviction wave
Since September of last year, landlords have been blocked by a CDC order from evicting tenants whose ability to pay rent has been limited by the pandemic. Despite this order, there have been several exceptions to the moratorium keeping local constables busy. Renters cans still be kicked out of their home for violating other terms in their lease, what the courts call a "material breach."
According to Pima County Constable Kristen Randall — one of the elected local law enforcement officers who serve court orders, such as evictions — material breach of contract is the most common reason for eviction after nonpayment.
"It’s kind of a wide net, but it includes everything from not trimming the hedges (I’ve seriously seen this), to broken cars in the driveway, to hoarding, to having a pet that isn’t permitted," Randall said. "Holdover tenants, where someone stays in the property after termination of the lease, is probably grouped in here, too."
"We did see an increase in breach eviction filings, likely because it was a way around the moratorium," she said.
Since the moratorium began Randall said that landlords have frequently made it clear that they were frustrated and would tell her "do her job" — by which they meant kick tenants out who weren't paying rent. But what sets Randall apart in the Pima County Constables Office is her approach to the job; as much as possible, Randall uses her position to keep people in their homes rather than evict them.
"My job isn't to go and just put people out," she said. "If I didn't feel that I could make a difference, I wouldn't be doing it right now. I would probably try to find something else."
Randall's approach is informed by her own experience of being homeless at age 18 after getting pregnant while she was living with her parents in New York.
"I’ve been housing insecure before, for a period of around eight years or so. It drains you, makes everything worse, and has life-altering negative effects."
She said that as long as she believes she can personally make a difference, she'll keep using the office of the constable to prioritize keeping people sheltered, an approach she describes as a "housing first" mentality.
"Statute doesn't say 'a constable will make sure that somebody being evicted is transitioned safely to a better situation,' like that's not in statute, but the opposite isn't in statute," she said. "We can make that our job, we're elected officials, we can make policies, we can make that our policy."
Under the order that the Centers for Disease Control issued last September, landlords lost the right to carry out evictions. That order was renewed for the third time on Tuesday when the CDC extended it for 60 days in areas that are experiencing "high" or "substantial" transmission (based on the number of new COVID cases per 100,000 people and the positivity rate measured over the past week). Pima County is listed by the CDC as having substantial numbers.
In 2019, more than 13,000 Pima County residents were ordered to leave their homes, but during 2020, the county's constables executed just over 1,600 writs of eviction, or eviction orders. In 2021, Pima County courts managed around 2,800 eviction filings and issued more than 780 evictions. Of those, only 659 were executed by constables, but Randall said thousands more will likely come when the CDC's order finally expires.
Nationwide, at least 451,772 people face evictions in 31 cities, and landlords have filed for 7,238 evictions, according to data from Eviction Lab. Eviction had already been a problem that affected millions of americans, as sociologist Matthew Desmond estimated that even in 2016, there were 2.3 million evictions filed, and now, as U.S. Rep. Cori Bush wrote on Twitter on Monday, as many as 11 million are "at risk of losing their homes at any moment."
State and local governments began receiving Emergency Rental Assistance funding in February, and the Biden administration started urging states to leverage Emergency Rental Assistance and their American Rescue Plan state and local funds to support policies with courts, community groups and legal aid to ensure no one seeks an eviction.
The Biden administration pushed state and local governments to continue the moratorium at their level too, and the city of Tucson did extend theirs to Dec. 1, 2021 though only for city-owned housing. However, the moratorium will expire one day at all levels, and extensions have come in the few days leading up to the moratorium's expiration or after its lapse, as was the case on Tuesday. In the two days during which the moratorium lapsed this week, Randall said it showed how "terrified families are about their rental assistance applications not making it to landlords in time to avoid eviction."
Having a plan
On Thursday, before the moratorium expired, Randall went to the house of 60-year-old Kathy Majloca to tell her that she was in breach of her lease because she had too many people going in and out of the apartment and that she was due to be evicted as the landlord refused to renew the lease. Randall was doing what she calls a "notice of eviction," which she does to tell tenants their options so they can have a plan.
When Randall walked up to the squat, tan apartments on Fairview Ave where Majloca lived, the door behind the metal security door shut firmly as she approached.
Constable Bennett Bernal, who covers the county's Precinct 6 on Tucson's West Side, also does notices like these in his precinct, but Randall does it more than any other Pima County constable. She often does it in the evenings with a lawyer who volunteers his time to give tenants legal advice that she might not be able to as constable.
When Randall, who was doing this notice alone, walked up to Majloca's door, she didn't notice that it closed on her at first, so she knocked, but while she started slippling the small notice of her upcoming eviction behind the metal security door, she thought to try and talk to her through the door.
“Kathy,” Randall said through the metal door. “This is Constable Kristen Randall. I wanted to talk to you. I’m not here to do the eviction today — I just wanted to get you information."
A short woman in a black and white Misfits t-shirt opened the door and pressed up against the screen. “I’ve never been evicted before,” she told Randall, gently sobbing. “I just need time to move out.”
She told the constable that she had nowhere to stay, no family and no phone, and that she suffers an SMI or serious mental illness. Another person was in the house with Majloca, a caregiver who she said was there to help her with depression.
Randall said caregivers are often friends or family whom tenants don't put down on their lease as living with them; but that informal practice can violate a lease, Randall said. Majloca told her she has two caregivers; one who was there began giving Majloca's information to Randall, while they were on the phone with Nahrin Jabro, a social worker who works in the Constables Office.
What Randall and Jabro were doing is considering housing options for Majloca, who had already said she didn't know where she's going. Randall said the point of notifying people about their evictions ahead of time, which constables don't have to do, is to make a plan.
“The question I always try to ask them is 'What’s your plan?,'” Randall said later. “Or 'Do you know where you’re going to stay?' I don’t think she had a plan."
When Randall was driving away, Jabro called to tell her that she couldn't find anything through Arizona Protective Services. They were using APS to find possible Section 8 housing options as Majloca was eligible for a housing voucher, Randall said. Instead, Jabro was told that she would hear back in about five days though they didn't know where Majloca would be at that time.
Both Jabro and Randall admitted their frustration, but committed to trying to find housing for Majloca within a day or two. Randall said APS tried their best, but it doesn't have the same "housing first" mentality geared toward keeping people in their homes above all else. Though, she said, a bureaucracy like APS or the Constables Office "could be what saves us" because it's there that long-term processes can be changed.
A day later, Randall returned to the apartment on Fairmont Ave. and found that Majloca was gone. Her nephew, who was there was loading her belongings into a truck, said she had relocated to a family member's house. Randall said that it's an example of why the notices of evictions are a good idea.
"Had we shown up to just evict, we'd have an elderly woman with SMI freaking out with no plan," Randall said.
'This one may be bad'
Later in the morning when Randall gave notice to Majloca, she had to carry out an eviction. This time she wore her badge around her neck so neighbors knew what she was doing, but she doesn't wear it at other times, like when giving notice.
She met with the landlord Keith Boullen, who owns a small place in Midtown, by his white pickup that said "Boullen Properties" along the side. The tall, gray-haired and soft-spoken Boullen had filed a writ of eviction for the person living inside because they refused to allow an exterminator to come into the house and spray for bugs.
"This one may be bad," she said before going into the property. She was also worried that the case might involve elder abuse as Boullen said that the 30-year-old man she's about to evict was living with his grandmother. Cases of elder abuse have come up before in her work, and Randall said it results in having to get APS involved and that it's awful to see.
Boullen tried to open the front door of the property with a master key, but something was jammed deep into the deadbolt’s keyhole. Boullen put an electric drill in the center of the keyhole and tried to remove the lock, but was unsuccessful. He and Randall decided to try the backdoor instead.
The backyard had been blocked off to Boullen by a new lock, but when he got through, the few dozen square feet of patio and lawn had slivers of weeds, a deep mound of empty Pepsi cans bleached white and light blue and a few books like a World of Warcraft gaming manuel rotting from the sun and rain.
The backdoor didn't give, but when Boullen and Randall returned to the front, the door was unlocked. The tenant had slipped away, but Randall said it didn't matter because the point was to get him out of the house anyway.
Inside the house, the air was thick with the odor of cat food and stale carpet. A layer of trash about a foot tall covered the floor except where the door opened. Randall pulled a pair of blue surgical booties over her shoes before she waded into the apartment with a flashlight. A few objects, like a package of Depends adult diapers, confirmed that and elderly person had been staying there.
Boullen, who said he's been renting properties for 30 years, left knowing he had to remediate the apartment, perhaps tear out the carpet, and replace the locks.
Landlords and property managers also had rental assistance available to them to cover the money they were loosing from keeping tenants who couldn't pay rent though Boullen had no option for assistance in his case because the tenant had already been evicted. He would just have to eat the costs of getting his apartment back into shape along with the lost month of rent.
'1,700 beer bottles and 1,000 hypodermic needles'
That afternoon, Randall went to perform an eviction at an apartment complex owned by the Arizona First Realty. While there, she and a couple of the company's property managers — who asked not to be identified — started sharing their experiences with tenants they've had to evict.
At one Arizona First Realty apartment block, a tenant left behind assult rifles, a stripper's pole, two dogs and a locked cooler. Inside the apartment, the managers found bolt-locks on all the interior doors, and when the man arrived for his dogs, he also took the cooler, insisting on keeping it level and immediately connecting it to a generator when he got it into the back of his truck.
Randall recalled a tenant named Wesley who ran after his landlord with a loaded gun when she came to evict him. Wesley ripped the landlord's car door open and pulled him out before Randall could calm him down. She then remembered a tenant named Charlie who greeted her like a friend whenever she came to evict him and who had a routine for rounding up his friends to get going because he had been evicted so many times before.
Constables give tenants a few minutes when they're being evicted to get what they need like medications, documents or important objects like baby books or ashes. The first eviction one of the property managers had to do was on a Friday before Christmas, and he said the woman he was evicting just kept grabbing presents.
"And the whole time, the constable was like, 'grab food, grab water, grab clothes for your kids,'" he said. "She was grabbing the TV. As constable, how many times have you seen that?" he asked Randall.
Randall said that indeed, it's common for residents to grab their TV when they're being evicted.
"We have a saying that unless you work in this industry you have no idea what it's like," one of the managers said. "With your friends, you talk to your friends about what you see, and they're like 'that can't possibly be true,' it's like well, 'you want to see pictures?'"
Imitating how he talks to his friends about his work, the manager said, "you want to see what it's like to climb over 1,700 bottles of beer? I'll tell you right now." Following his bit, Randall then said "have you ever seen a room filled with about a thousand hypodermic needles?" Both of the managers went quiet and then one said, "that I have not seen."
"Really?" Randall said. "I've got pictures."
The property managers said they tried to help tenants missing their rent at the beginning of the moratorium by sitting down with them and working out a budget to payback the missed rent, but it would never work out because tenants would still come up short.
"They would show up with 10 bucks, and I can't take that. Your lease is going to expire two times over before you get caught up," one of the managers said.
As property managers, they report to an owner of the Arizona First Realty properties, and he said these owners are thought of as "millionaires," based on what he said he hears about them. He said that most of the property owners he's worked for still have their day job. "I don't know any kind of owner who can just absorb that kind of loss," he said, talking about how evictions are a loss for everyone involved.
"We don't want to kick people out. We don't want to evict people," he said. "We're not in the job to empty apartments, we're in the job to put people inside of them."
Randall was evicting the tenant at the Arizona First Realty complex for a complaint of too many people coming in and out of the apartment that led to a non-renewal on the lease. The managers said the tenant had also caused four neighboring tenants to leave their units because of issues with noise and the number of people always coming and going. The tenant was already gone when Randall came.
Today was awful
Sunday, August 1st was the first time the moratorium was allowed to lapse, but by Tuesday the 3rd it had been reinstated by the CDC in areas with "high" or "substantial" continued spread of coronavirus — including Pima County.
On the Monday evening after the moratorium expired, Randall posted a graphic on Facebook that said "today was awful" in front of rain drops. In a comment on the post, she said that she was "worried it's only the beginning."
In the single day that the moratorium had lapsed, Randall received a rush of messages from tenants she had been working with asking when they were going to be evicted. Randall said that she felt defeated.
"I didn't have any answers," Randall said that Monday. "It's really emotional too...these aren't random people either, these are people I've been working with for the past year and a half. These are people who I went to their homes and sat on their chairs and played with their kids while I helped them fill out rental assistance applications. These are women who had babies during this time, and I've held them or brought them a bag of diapers. These are elderly people, who when I showed up at their doors to give them notice of the eviction, started crying in front of me and I held them and said 'I'm here to help.' And I can't do that anymore. I know these people, and I might not be able to help them."
But Randall said that she will keep trying to help as long as she believes that she can personally do something that will make a difference for someone.
"If I didn't feel like I could do anything, if I was just like an eviction machine, I wouldn't do this. That's not what I signed up for," Randall said.
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.