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With eviction moratorium blocked, Pima County promotes aid for renters & landlords

Pima County officials said Friday that they are urgently working to help people facing eviction, and provide aid to cover overdue rent and utility bills.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration's eviction moratorium, writing that the CDC exceeded its authority by halting the enforcement of eviction orders in areas with "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission of COVID-19. That includes every county in Arizona.

Extended at the beginning of August until October 3, the CDC's order did not protect all renters from eviction, but blocked evictions at properties that participate in federal assistance programs, or are backed by federal loans. While observers and legal experts believed the moratorium was likely to fall to a legal challenge, the court's Thursday order was still considered abrupt, and means that thousands of households suddenly lost a shield from evictions while millions in federal aid has yet to be distributed. 

Pima County officials said that they are continuing to provide assistance, and that resources are still available to help.

"We have been working hard to provide additional rental assistance since the beginning of the pandemic and we will continue to do so with urgency," said Dan Sullivan, director of Pima County's Department of Community and Workforce Development. "Resources are still available to help qualified Pima County residents avoid evictions."

Pima County, in a partnership with the city of Tucson and the Community Investment Corporation, has distributed nearly $20 million in rental assistance, and more than $1.6 million in utility assistance since March.

The county has already churned through 3,846 cases as of August 23, officials said, and more than 5,000 cases remain in the pipeline for aid.

The county has paid out or committed about $23.9 million in funds as part of the first round of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program,

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Landlords can apply for rental and utility assistance on behalf of their tenants, but households must also take part in the process in order to verify that they meet the income requirements for eligibility, the county said.

Eligible households can receive up to 12 months of back rent and up to three months of future rent, or a total of 15 months, under ERAP, the county said. The program can also pay up to 12 months of overdue utility bills.

People interested in applying can go to TucsonPimaEP.com and apply.

The county also has a program to give legal aid to people already facing eviction through the county's Emergency Eviction Legal Services.

"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.

Tenants who need legal aid can apply at www.pima.gov/EvictionLegalServices, or call (520) 724-3357.

Sullivan said that while there are funds to help households in distress, there is a backlog of applicants and it can take weeks for a case to be processed and for payments to go out. Sullivan advises tenants and landlords to be patient, and noted that landlords cannot be paid for back rent once they evict a tenant.

"This might be one of the few times in the history of the federal government when we have enough money to solve a problem,” Sullivan said. "Now we just have to make sure that money gets out into the community."

On August 17, a coalition of landords and renter assistance groups, including the Arizona Multihousing Associaton and the Arizona Housing Coalition wrote to the Pima County supervisors and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and pushed for the county to speed up rental assistance programs and "seek critical reforms to the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program."

Since March 27, 2020, the federal government has imposed a national eviction moratorium in some form or another, the group said.  "Since that time—18 months and counting—many renters and rental property owners are still awaiting rental assistance."

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They noted that in December, Congress created the ERAP and allocated $492 million to the state of Arizona, and added an additional $428 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, for state and local housing agencies to distribute. "These appropriations were a welcomed sight for many renters and rental property owners across the state," the group said.

However, the group said, "since the original ERAP appropriation by Congress, only $91 million—10 percent of the total funds available—has been distributed to renters and rental property owners."

Treasury Department data shows that Pima County aided 1,172 families since the program began, distributing about $5.9 million in rental assistance and utilities, after receiving around $15.2 million. From June 1 to June 30, Pima County helped around 344 households.

The city of Tucson distributed $2.7 million, aiding about 733 families, after receiving $16.7 million.

About $1.7 billion was distributed in July to vulnerable households for rent, utilities and missed payments across the country, only a minor increase from a month earlier when federal officials distributed $1.5 billion. The slow rollout of federal funds has meant that most of the $45 billion appropriated by Congress for emergency aids has not reached the people who need it.

Of the $25 billion appropriated in December, state and local programs distributed just $5.1 billion between January and the end of July. Another $21.5 billion was added by the American Rescue Plan in March, and of that, about $108 million had been distributed by June.

In a report, Treasury officials said they were making progress, adding that by July 31, there were more than 1 million payment made to eligible households since the programs began in January. In July, more than 340,000 households received nearly $1.7 billion in rental and utilities assistance.

Treasury said that many local governments had "shown an ability to aid vulnerable households quickly," however, too many have "yet to demonstrate sufficient progress in getting assistance to struggling tenants and landlords."

"After September, programs that are unwilling or unable to deliver assistance quickly will be at risk of having their rental assistance funding reallocated to effective programs in other high-need areas," they said.

"One of the biggest challenges many state and local government programs continue to face in getting assistance to renters and landlords is application processing delays," officials said, adding that "hundreds of thousands of applications are in the pipeline beyond those that have already been paid."

The coalition of housing groups blamed regulations, and pressed for changes.

"Critics have correctly pointed to overly burdensome regulatory requirements prescribed by Congress, as well as additional requirements imposed by the distributing agencies, as being the primary challenge to disbursing the funds,"  said. "Eighteen months into the pandemic, and eight months after ERAP was approved by Congress, it is time to cut the red tape and the onerous requirements that are making it so difficult to deploy these critical funds.

They asked Congress to remove income restrictions, allow ERAP funds to cover rent balances for "non-communicative renters," and allow renters to attest to their income, and allow property owners to receive ERAP even if the renter has moved.

"By enacting the above reforms, Congress can ensure that renters remain stable in their housing for the remainder of the pandemic and rental property owners do not default on their mortgages or other financial obligations," the group said.

Huckelberry told the group that the county had already given out about 70 percent of the ERAP funds. And, in a memo to the Board of Supervisors, he said that he "extremely pleased with the efforts of staff," noting that Pima County staff "continue to explore additional strategies to reach those in our community facing eviction."

EELS has three "navigators," he said, who help people get through the eviction process and in two weeks, they received 152 inquires, and helped 84 qualifying tenants. He said this part had been "warmly" received by the court and other stakeholders.

Huckelberry added that "some of our most difficult challenges are logistical."

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"Eviction cases move very quickly—a case filed on a Monday, for example, will result in an initial appearance the next Monday, if not sooner," he said. "If the tenant does not appear, or does not present an adequate case at that initial appearance, judgement will be entered for the landlord."

"Our best chance to help tenants with legal assistance is to reach them before the initial appearance," he said. "Targeted outreach is therefore critical, and this has thus been our focus."

The county is attempting to expand the reach of the program, and Huckelberry said they are considering doing "apartment sweeps" targeting places with high eviction rates.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Keith Boullen, a landlord in midtown Tucson, repairs a lock after his tenant was evicted by Pima County Constable Kristen Randall.


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