Six days before the statewide eviction moratorium was set to expire on July 22, Governor Doug Ducey announced an executive order extending it to October 31. While this buys precious time for renters who are dealing with the effects of COVID-19, some advocates say Ducey could do more to fully address the problem.
The governor’s executive order directs courts and county constables to temporarily delay eviction orders if a tenant is required to quarantine because they or someone living in their home are diagnosed with COVID-19; they have a health condition that puts them at greater risk of COVID-19; and/or they have suffered a substantial loss of income due to COVID-19 for reasons such as job loss or closure, reduction in pay, having to stay home to care for children, or “other pertinent circumstances.”
If a tenant falls into one of these categories, they are required to notify their landlord or property owner in writing with any supporting documents.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, tenants, public officials and nonprofit organizations have pointed out that the process for applying for rental assistance from the state is complicated, time-consuming and isn’t meeting the needs of tenants across Arizona.
Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Housing reported that only half of their 18,000 rental assistance applications have been processed. Out of the $130 million in rental assistance funds currently available, only $1.2 million has been disbursed to those in need.
Agencies have indicated they are lacking staff to process the high volume of applications and tenants are facing difficulties providing the specific paperwork to meet the state’s eligibility requirements.
While Gov. Ducey did recently announce a $5 million allocation of mostly federal funding to homelessness programs, Reps. Kirsten Engel (District 10) and Andrés Cano (District 3) and Sen. Sean Bowie (District 18) said these dollars will not reach tenants in the time needed to prevent upcoming evictions.
“Many of those evicted for nonpayment of rent will end up homeless in the midst of the pandemic and severe summer heat and their future search for housing will be burdened by the black mark of an eviction on their record,” they wrote in a July 16 letter to Ducey.
Engel believes there are many different things the Department of Housing could do to simplify the process for determining eligibility for rental assistance. She suggests they simply have tenants self-certify that they meet one or more of the qualifying factors in the executive order, and allow tenants to use a utility bill to prove their identity and address instead of an official government-issued ID.
“All of this is in their control, they set the rules for this,” Engel said. “It wasn’t dictated by the legislature, it’s not dictated by statute. They’re coming up with the rules, and what we’ve seen is that the rules are just too cumbersome and it’s really led to the assistance going out at a very slow rate.”
Another option is they could enlist landlords and property owners to help tenants fill out these applications. Engel said they are the ones who know who hasn’t paid rent, and would have an easier time providing the paperwork.
Others who work with tenants on a daily basis agree that DHS needs to simplify their application process. Pima County Constable Kristen Randall of Precinct 8 called the process “dreadful” and even after a tenant is approved for financial assistance, the time it takes for them to actually receive the money to put toward rent is lengthy.
She recalls a tenant who applied for DHS rental assistance on April 29. Randall recently called the county to ask about the status of his application, and learned that they weren’t even close to cutting him a check nearly three months later.
“Two weeks ago there was something like 51,000 applications for that money in Pima County and only 116 applications had seen any kind of funds released to the landlord,” Randall said.
While she is happy to see that Ducey extended the moratorium, giving tenants more time to stabilize their living situation, Randall said the state still needs to address their broken application process and increase the funding within the program.
“You can give us the time, but if we don’t have the money, then the time is just slapping Band-Aid on it,” she said. “If you give us the time and the money, but there’s still all that red tape, it just doesn’t work. So we need all three.”
Without these extra actions from the state, Randall expects the responsibility to fall on cities and counties to help residents keep their rental housing. The Constable’s Office is already working on a grant program in partnership with the City of Tucson to make direct referrals for local rental assistance while they are out interacting with tenants every day.
Randall said if the moratorium were to end on its original expiration date of July 22, Tucson and Pima County had “zero tools in their toolbox” for preventing renters from losing their homes.
“We’re not going to sit around and wait for Doug Ducey to come up with something,” she said.
On the other side of this issue, landlords and property owners are concerned about how to pay bills during the next three months while evictions are prohibited. Arizona MultiHousing Association CEO Courtney LeVinus said Ducey’s extended moratorium is “incredibly disappointing” for property owners across the state.
“We’re not disappointed because we’re heartless or because we want to see anyone evicted during a pandemic,” LeVinus said in a statement. “Rather, property owners are disappointed because the state’s haphazard, woefully inefficient rental relief initiatives have done virtually nothing to help renters and property owners for going on 120 days now.”
Without rental assistance being disbursed efficiently, local property owners who rely on rental income to pay bills, loans, property taxes, utilities and more will have no way to make their payments, according to LeVinus. This chain reaction would likely worsen the economic impact of COVID-19.
In their letter to Ducey, Engel and the other legislators encouraged the state government to provide small business landlords with mortgage relief while the pandemic is ongoing.
LeVinus said property owners have been working with tenants to file applications, create payment plans and advocate for more money to be deployed into communities.