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Portela: Collective queasiness about the eviction cliff

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Candidate commentary

Portela: Collective queasiness about the eviction cliff

Andres Portela is a Democrat challenging City Councilman Steve Kozachik in the primary election:

I'm a candidate for Ward 6 Tucson City Council member; that isn't why I've chosen to write this. I am writing as a concerned housing advocate who has a few solutions.

Before the global health pandemic, there was an eviction crisis; the only difference is we now have money from the state and federal government to help our community.

Right now, there is no obligation for your landlord to not file for eviction even though you may have used COVID-19 relief to pay your bills.

Arizona Central published an article titled, Arizona landlords who received grants to help non-paying tenants file hundreds of evictions anyways. This article discusses the Arizona Rental Property Owner Prevention Fund, which provided $5 million to assist landlords whose tenants could not pay rent due to the pandemic; those funds ran out quickly. Despite Phoenix housing providers receiving these funds, one using $1 million of the funds later filed 350 evictions. Another landlord filed for eviction on almost 30% of his tenants despite receiving $50,000 in assistance for that same property.

Even though Phoenix is almost 200 miles away, their issues might become the problems of tomorrow for us. Last week, Pima County and the city of Tucson hosted an eviction prevention fair with the opportunity for renters to access $23 million in assistance. To qualify, an applicant must earn less than 80 percent of the area median income for a family of 4, which is $48,500 if they make $60,600 a year.

At this moment, there is nothing that stops a housing provider from saying they no longer want to accept alternative sources of income, but there can be. If we don't get clear and decisive action, Tucson will be just like Phoenix and thousands of other cities across the nation as we face the eviction cliff: June 30.

Cue the collective queasiness and fear of the unknown.

As I worked in the Ward 1 Council Office at the beginning of the pandemic, every day, we would get calls about what resources would be available to keep families in their homes, apartments or contact our neighbors off the street. The assistance came on the federal level, and within a month, city staff had over 4,000 applications for housing and utility assistance, which wasn't enough. We knew then that we can provide temporary aid financially as much as we know now; however, it will take a bit of creative policy.

The solution resides within our Fair Housing Ordinance or Chapter 17 of the City of Tucson non-discrimination ordinance. This ordinance bans discrimination based on race, color, national origins, ancestry, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, sex, familial status, and marital status. Therefore, source of income needs to be the following fair housing protections, and we have to act quickly.

Source of income protections prohibit housing discrimination based on the way tenants pay their rent. Twelve cities, including Washington, D.C., have already added this protection for renters and homebuyers, which traditionally are for federal benefits like Social Security and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families but could potentially include rental or mortgage payments on behalf of a municipality or nonprofit.

Source of income protections have broader implications of keeping our community members in place post the eviction cliff. Tucson has almost 5,000 community members who use housing vouchers, and these protections are a long-term issue of accessing neighborhoods of choice and have access to safe, quality housing. Politics aside, there isn't a revised statute that is slowing us down from doing this. The housing director believes it's a viable solution. All it will take is someone with the political courage to protect our community.

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