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Pima County's eviction aid program wins nat'l recognition
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Pima County's eviction aid program wins nat'l recognition

Emergency Eviction Legal Services gets 2022 award from national economic development group

  • Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County's work to provide legal and financial help to people facing eviction during the pandemic was recognized with a 2022 Award of Excellence from the National Association for County Community and Economic Development.

The county’s Emergency Eviction Legal Services program started in August 2021, when the federal eviction moratorium finally lapsed for good, and has since helped about 230 households with full legal representation, triple the most recent years’ numbers, according to a press release.

In early December, the Board of Supervisors approved a one-year $425,000 contract with four private law firms to continue providing the EELS program.

Tenants are only eligible for free legal help if their total household income is equal to or less than 80 percent of the average median income in Pima County — up to $38,000 for a single person, and $54,900 for a family of four.

The county’s informational website on EELS has a table that shows what incomes qualify based on household size and a link for an application to receive assistance. The site also offers links for food, housing and employment resources and services.

Most low-income county residents qualify for “brief legal assistance” if they’re facing eviction. This includes a one-time consultation with a contracted lawyer, which can include negotiations with landlords.

Contracted attorneys can also offer full representation for tenants if “in the contractor’s independent professional judgement (the tenant has) a nonfrivolous basis” to contest an issue related to their eviction, according to the current contract with law firms. The county would pay the attorney’s legal fees in such cases.

EELS “aims to improve tenants’ access to justice while also connecting tenants and landlords to services that seek to ensure that residents stay securely housed,” according to a press release.

Pima County won the NACCED award in the “Homeless Coordination/Assistance” category, and county staff from the Community and Workforce Development Department, which oversees the program, picked up the award last Wednesday during NACCED’s 2022 annual conference in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Andy Flagg, who oversees EELS as the county's deputy director of Community and Workforce Development, said in a press release that the program “helps level a historically uneven playing field in court, increasing access to justice for tenants facing eviction.”

“Moreover, it is cost-effective,” Flagg said. “The annual monetary cost of eviction in Pima County is enormous — $103,265,349. Interventions that are effective in stopping preventable evictions can reduce that cost, to say nothing of avoiding the human toll created by a loss of housing.”

In 2020, Pima County had 79 tenants who were able to hire legal representation for eviction cases from a law firm or “outside counsel,” as opposed to using a state attorney. In 2019, only 56 Pima County tenants had an outside lawyer for eviction cases, officials said.

During the first year of the EELS program, however, the number of tenants with full representation through EELS alone was more than triple the 2019 or 2020 numbers with 233 households getting legal representation from the program and almost 800 getting legal counsel.

“This indicates EELS is improving access to justice for tenants,” Flagg said in the press release.

NACCED also recognized how much money the county has given out in rent assistance for landlords who postpone eviction. Since August 2021, the city of Tucson and Pima County have issued more than $52 million in aid to almost 16,000 households, mostly within the city limits.

Tucson and Pima County used to distribute rental assistance together through the Eviction Prevention Program, which started in 2021 to quickly distribute federal rental assistance. Tucson dropped out of the program in May, however, as federal funds ran low though the county, now running the program alone, expects to continue offering rental assistance until the spring of 2023.

The EELS program also helps arrange hotel rooms to temporarily house families who face homeless immediately after an eviction. EELS has a block of rooms at a local hotel, with on-site case management.

“We prioritize families and those who have compromising conditions or other circumstances that make traditional shelters not appropriate for them,” Flagg said. “This allows us to address the end of the eviction continuum with a resource that hasn’t been available through the county before.”

The NACCED is based in Washington D.C. and was established in 1978 as an affiliate of the National Association of Counties. Its goal is to “develop the technical capacity of county government practitioners that administer federally-funded affordable housing, community development and economic development programs benefiting low- and moderate-income households,” according to its website.

NACCED works with counties who get community development funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which includes the Community Development Block Grants.

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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