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Pima County offers legal, rent assistance to tenants & landlords

Pima County officials have created a new program to help renters facing eviction, offering legal aid along with rent and utility assistance.

Even as the CDC said last week that it will block evictions for non-payment, renewing an order that expired at the end of July, the Emergency Eviction Legal Services program is part of a larger effort to mitigate or prevent evictions in the county, backed by funding from the federal government. This includes the Tucson and Pima County Eviction Prevention/Rental Assistance and Utility Relief Program, supported with $27.1 million managed by the Community Investment Corporation.

The EELS program is funded by part of the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March. As part of the $1.86 trillion bill, the federal government allocated $21.6 billion for emergency rental assistance. Of that, an estimated $787 million went to Arizona to cover housing expenses, and about $102 million went directly to Pima County, with another $102 million expected.

So far, Pima County and the Tucson city officials have managed 16,160 prevention requests—up nearly 1,000 from Friday—and has committed to nearly $21.5 million in funding to cover rental payments and utilities. This local effort has already covered about $1.2 million in utilities, and another $15.8 million in rent assistance.

At least 3,234 cases have already been covered by the program, and officials said that they are currently working through a backlog of nearly 5,000 applicants since the program began in April. Officials said that it will take two to three months to work through that line.

There have been about 2,788 eviction filings here in 2021, according to data from the Pima County.

Data from the county also shows that about 783 writs of restitution, a step in the process of evicting someone, have been issued by the court, and Pima County constables, who enforce eviction orders, have completed 659 evictions this year. Overall, county figures show that judgements and writs have decreased since January.

As the COVID-19 outbreak knocked out the economy, millions found themselves jobless and unable to pay rent, and on September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order temporarily halting residential evictions. However, for most of the last year, the moratorium has been on the chopping block again and again, as the first December deadline passed, and the order was renewed in January and March. The order was finally set to expire on July 31 after Congress decided not to extend the order by law, preferring to go on an August break rather than consider another moratorium.

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However, on Tuesday, the CDC announced a new moratorium that would cover areas with "high" or "substantial" spread of coronavirus—including Pima County.

The emergence of the Delta variant has led to a rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, putting more Americans at increased risk, especially if they are unvaccinated," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

"This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads. It is imperative that public health authorities act quickly to mitigate such an increase of evictions, which could increase the likelihood of new spikes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Such mass evictions and the attendant public health consequences would be very difficult to reverse," Walensky said in a news release.

The CDC's order came as the Biden administration strains to get funding awarded to the states to individual tenants and homeowners.

Data from the U.S. Treasury shows that while Arizona has received $289.6 million for emergency rental assistance from the Biden administration, only about $4.4 million has been disbursed by the state, said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

"As the delta variant spreads across Arizona, it’s irresponsible and inhumane to evict people from their homes and turn them out on the streets," Grijalva said. "It doesn’t need to be this way. The State received millions in emergency rental assistance thanks to the American Rescue Plan but has consistently failed to distribute the money in a timely manner to those in need." Grijalva pushed the governor to reissue a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and said state and local courts should pause eviction hearings "until tenants and landlords can seek and access emergency rental assistance."

"The failure of the state to disburse these funds allocated by Congress months ago is creating an eviction crisis," Grijalva said, adding that Arizona "must correct this immediately." He also said he would look to vote for an extension to the moratorium "as soon as possible."

"Evictions will only exacerbate the dual public health and economic crises, and we should do everything in our power to keep Arizona families in their homes," Grijalva said.

EELS offers help for tenants and landlords, but will also provides renters access to an attorney based on their income: a single person making less than $30,760, or a family of four making less than $43,920 can receive free legal help. Program employees called navigators can help explain the process of eviction, and connect people to other county and community resources. "We understand that an eviction process can be scary and confusing. That’s why EELS is here to help," the county said.

"Most tenants facing eviction cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Pima County’s new program will connect these tenants with lawyers, at no cost to them, helping level the playing field in court," said Andrew Flagg, deputy director of Pima County’s Community and Workforce Development Department. "We will also provide any party to an eviction case with a resource navigator, who can help walk parties through the process and connect them with other available resources, which might include rental assistance or help finding other housing or a job."

The county is ramping up the program, but questions remain about how great the need is in Pima County.

"That's the $64,000 question," Flagg said. "We know that filings are at 50 percent of normal, but we expect filings to come back up substantially," he said. "We don't now how many cases have been waiting for the moratorium to end," he said. "Even in normal times, of the certain number of cases that are filed, not all of those end in a judgment. And, even less than half of those end up having a writ executed," he said.

"But, there's never been rent assistance on steroids," he said. "We've helped a lot of people and there are a lot of people who can be helped."

Flagg said that EELS is separate from rental assistance, and the program itself will receive about $1 million per year. "We will be pursuing additional funding to maintain the program after the initial funding source runs out," he said.

Manira Cervantes, manager of Pima County's Community Services Division, said households seeking assistance are subject to eligibility guidelines for the programs.

"I urge everyone who has applied to have their documents ready and communicate with their landlord about the pending application for assistance," Cervantes said. "The key component in moving applications along requires both parties — landlord and tenant — to agree and provide required documentation."

In 2016, Tucson was among the top 25 cities for eviction filings, according to the Eviction Lab, and it's likely that the city's overall eviction rate has only increased because of the outbreak of COVID-19 and the faltering economy. An analysis by the consulting firm Stout Risius Ross estimated that once the eviction hold lifts, there could be 93,000 to 116,000 filings in Arizona. And according to a December analysis by a task force dedicated to preventing evictions and homelessness in Pima County, it's expected that there could be 20,000 to 26,000 households facing eviction without the moratorium.

On average, over the past four years, evictions have been around 12,000, but "the dramatic depth of the current recession, and the eviction moratoriums in place for most of the year past March, this estimate of 20,000 to 26,000 potential evictions does not seem implausible," the group wrote in December. "The critical question is how many of these potential evictions will be prevented by currently allocated rental assistance resources," the group wrote.

Additionally, the cost of evictions to Pima County could top $419 million, according to the University of Arizona’s Innovation for Justice Program. Linked to the surge of evictions, the cost includes emergency shelter costs, inpatient and emergency services, child welfare services, and juvenile delinquency.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Constable Kristen Randall serving an eviction notice at a midtown apartment just days before the moratorium ended.

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