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Pima supervisors OK continued free legal help for tenants facing eviction

County board approves $425k for Emergency Eviction Legal Services program

Low-income Pima County residents facing eviction will continue to have free legal help next year after the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to spend $425,000 on the Emergency Eviction Legal Services program.

The county board approved a one-year contract with four private law firm that will continue the program, which in part tries to keep tenants in their homes by finding them rent assistance, handles negotiations with landlords, and explains their rights in court.

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 Emergency Eviction Legal Services site has a table that shows what incomes qualify based on household size and a link for an application to receive Tucson and Pima County eviction prevention resources. The site also offers links for food, housing and employment resources and services.

The contract will pay for “brief legal assistance” for low-income county residents who are facing eviction, who can get a one-time consultation with a contracted lawyer, which can include negotiations with landlords.

The attorneys also have the ability to enter into full representation of tenants, per the contract, if “in the contractor’s independent professional judgement (the tenant has) a nonfrivolous basis” to contest an issue related to their eviction. The county would pay the attorney’s legal fees in such cases.

The assistance is like a legal “triage” for tenants facing eviction, said Andy Flagg, who oversees EELS and as the county's deputy director of Community and Workforce Development.

“They’re going to have to have a consultation no matter what for the lawyer to decide whether there's a defense that the lawyer can ethically and legally raise,” he said. “They’re going to get the benefit of having a lawyer’s eyes on the case and a review of what their legal rights may be.”

Tenants will be able to hear what their rights are and what they aren’t, and lawyers will advise whether they should enter into negotiations with the landlord, Flagg said.

The Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the contract at their Tuesday meeting, with the one “no” vote coming from Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board. The contract was too “heavily weighted against the landlord community” for Christy’s approval, he said during the meeting.

The county had already contracted six firms to provide the same kind of help to county residents, but those contracts are set to expire at the end of the year, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher said.

Christy said during the meeting that he was concerned the contract was expanding EELS, which started in August to help consolidate and deliver eviction resources through the county. The program was meant to be temporary and “now it’s becoming institutionalized,” Christy said, demanding an explanation from Lesher.

“It is not an expansion of legal counsel,” Lesher said. “It is simply the fact that a variety of contracts with legal counsel expire Dec. 31 of this year… We hope to enter into contracts with those remaining four responsive companies to continue the Eviction Legal Services.”

The four firms are Southern Arizona Legal Aid, Ferguson Hill Law, the Law Office of Paul Gattone, and Barton Mendez Soto from Tempe. The other law firms are headquartered in Tucson. The four firms will share the contract amount but each charge varying flat fees for brief legal assistance that ranges from $150 to $750. The county solicited involvement from another law firm, but they didn't respond, officials said.

The EELS program started operating in August, as part of Pima County's Department of Community and Workforce Development.

From August to October, there were 2,110 evictions filed in Pima County, less than the 2,875 filed during the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, and more than the 1,400 filed in the time period in 2020, during the pandemic.

August was the first month during which a federal moratorium on evictions expired after having been extended, and the Supreme Court struck down a repeated attempt to extend it for areas with a “substantial or high transmission” of COVID, a designation by the Centers for Disease Control.

Since the end of that moratorium, eviction filings in Pima County have steadily risen, but total filings are only about 73 percent of what they were before the pandemic, according to a memo by Flagg. During the moratorium, filings hovered around 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

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From August to October, the EELS program reported having been contacted by 1442 county residents seeking their assistance or information. EELS staff determined 487 of them were qualified for representation or brief legal assistance from contracted attorneys, and more than 400 were referred for rental assistance, money to cover late rate and utilities.

In those three months, the county’s six contracted attorneys also provided brief legal assistance to 377 households, which is about six households per day. 58 tenants received full representation from these attorneys over the same time period, and landlords received favorable judgments in 48 percent of those cases.

Tenants received a favorable decision in 38 percent of cases in which they had full representation by these attorneys in the same three-month stretch, and 14 percent of the cases in which tenants received full representation are still pending a decision.

In late September, the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts started offering settlement conferences to parties that agreed to them, and since then, 19 have been held with 17 resulting in settlements. Tenants can receive full representation from EELS during these meetings.

The county expects to refer more than 1,500 tenants to contracted lawyers in 2022, according to Flagg’s memo, for either representation or brief legal assistance.

"Through contracts with nonprofits and private lawyers, the Office of Emergency Eviction Legal Services provides access to justice to tenants facing eviction,” Flagg said in a press release. “The master agreement approved today will allow Pima County to continue to provide these services to hundreds more households in 2022.”

Pima County also works with the city of Tucson and the Community Investment Corporation, a local financial services nonprofit. Together, they’ve handled nearly 7,600 local cases and have distributed more than $3.6 million in utility assistance since March. About 5,000 local eviction cases remain in their pipeline for aid.

Landlords can also 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.

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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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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