Metro Phoenix had an eviction problem before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Residents in Maricopa County were more than twice as likely to lose a home to eviction than the typical U.S. resident from 2014-2018, according to a report by New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Evictions even continued when the state and federal governments instituted eviction moratoriums during the pandemic.
On July 31, the final eviction moratorium will expire, and evictions are expected to return to their pre-pandemic pace — if not exceed it.
Evictions have long-term impacts beyond the immediate trauma of losing a home. Landlords typically won’t rent to tenants with an eviction record, leaving evicted families living in cramped quarters or run-down rentals where landlords are more forgiving of eviction history.
A 70-year-old in metro Phoenix was evicted after he fell behind $1,500 on rent because he was hospitalized with COVID-19. His landlord decided to sell the rental property and filed an eviction to get him out, he said.
Now he’s living in a two-bedroom apartment with six other men.
“The eviction is killing my background check. Even though I am working and have a good (Social Security) check,” he said. “I have the (money) for a studio or one-bedroom. But the big ‘E’ on my record …”
Other U.S. cities have implemented programs and techniques to help renters stay housed and avoid an eviction record while making sure property owners get paid.
In metro Phoenix, local governments piloted a few programs and expanded others during the pandemic to try to curb evictions. But programs vary across cities, leaving some tenants with less assistance than others. And none of the programs in metro Phoenix are as expansive as the most successful ones in other parts of the country.
Experts say strong eviction prevention programs should be implemented in every city and county immediately to prepare for the surge of post-pandemic eviction filings.
They say the most successful typically include some combination of the following: rental assistance counseling, legal assistance and mediation.
Here’s how each of those programs would work.
Money with counseling
Providing struggling tenants with rental assistance is an obvious way to stave off eviction, and the federal government has allocated almost $1 billion to help Arizona renters.
However, rental assistance programs across the state have been slow to distribute the aid. An Arizona Republic investigation found that only 10% of assistance had reached renters by early June.
Representatives from the assistance programs say they have implemented new procedures that should allow them to get more money out before the eviction moratorium expires.
But money alone may not be enough to stop evictions.
Nationally, many cities have seen success with programs that go beyond just providing financial assistance.
In Santa Clara County in California, a collaboration of government agencies, private funders and nonprofits provide both rental assistance and other support such as employment help, child care and transportation to make sure people have long-term success and stability.
Since the program began in 2017, it’s assisted 2,437 families. More than 95% remained stably housed while participating in the program and only 2% lost their homes in the year after they completed it, according to the program website.
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Phoenix began a similar program in 2019. Residents requesting assistance were given the option of participating in a three-month program where a case manager would work with them on their individual employment and housing needs and connect them to other services in the community.
Tammy Frazee, Phoenix community services program coordinator, likened the program to the saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
“To me, case management is teaching that man to fish,” Frazee said.
She said the program stalled a bit during COVID-19, when the priority shifted to getting as much emergency assistance out the door as possible. But Frazee said she believes more people will take advantage of it when the eviction moratoriums end and people have large sums of money due and concerns about their long-term housing options.
“It’s not a requirement but if we could get them to accept some kind of case management, I think we would be able to help them long term,” Frazee said.
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If a renter does fall behind on rent before they are able to access rental assistance, courts should mandate landlords to participate in mediation before filing for eviction, some experts say.
Tenants then have the opportunity to work out a solution before their rental record is tainted by an eviction filing.
Cities that require mediation provide neutral mediators who work with both the landlord and tenant to come up with a reasonable payment plan or other solution to make sure the landlord is made whole and the tenant remains housed.
Mediation can be beneficial to landlords, too, saving them the cost of hiring an attorney.
In a recent American Bar Association report, researchers found that 70% of landlords surveyed would be inclined to address nonpayment issues outside of court.
About half said they would prefer mediation to occur before they file for eviction, while about 70% supported mediation postfiling but before a court hearing.
Philadelphia began mandatory mediation during the pandemic.
The Philadelphia City Council, and later the municipal court, began requiring landlords to participate in mediation before filing for eviction in September.
More than half of landlords and tenants who participated reaching an agreement without going to court.
Philadelphia’s success has led housing advocates and experts to encourage mandatory precourt mediation across the country even after the pandemic subsides.
Philadelphia senior program manager Mark Dodds said the city modeled the program after its mortgage foreclosure prevention program, which began during the Great Recession. That program is still in effect and has been touted as saving more than 15,000 homes, he said.
Dodds said the requirement that landlords participate in mediation before filing for eviction ensures renters aren’t left with a dark mark on their rental history.
It also reduces the court caseload.
Most importantly, it keeps people in their homes.
“We’re seeing that when two parties meet, there is a 70%, if not higher, success rate,” Dodds said.
Philadelphia is currently using federal pandemic relief funds to pay for the mediation program. Dodds said the city would like to continue it after the pandemic, but it’s unclear how the city would fund it.
No decision has been made on whether the city or court system will continue to make mediation mandatory.
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Free legal help for renters
If renters can’t work out a solution before an eviction is filed, either on their own or with a professional mediator, it’s unlikely they will successfully prevent their eviction in court.
Maricopa County judges favored the landlord in more than 99% of eviction judgments between 2105-2019.
Chances of success in court are even lower if renters don’t have legal representation.
In recent years, fewer than 5% of Maricopa County renters had legal representation during an eviction, compared with more than 90% of landlords.
The justices of the peace who preside over hearings are trained in eviction law but do not have to be attorneys. So often, the only attorney in the room during an eviction hearing is representing the landlord.
“The eviction process is complicated and overwhelming for tenants facing the loss of their home, particularly now during the pandemic when different rules or processes apply. Tenants having access to legal help is essential to protecting their rights,” said Chris Groninger, a consumer advocate with the nonprofit Arizona Bar Foundation.
Legal representation is expensive, and people facing eviction often don’t have extra funds to hire an attorney. The only way to guarantee representation for tenants is for cities or counties to provide them with it.
“Right to counsel” laws, which provide legal representation to low-income renters facing eviction, have gained popularity throughout the country.
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New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and San Francisco were some of the earliest adopters of right to counsel laws in eviction proceedings. Today, at least three states and about a dozen cities do so.
The results are clear: Tenants with legal representation are significantly more likely to stay housed than those without it.
According to the New York City Office of Civil Justice 2019 annual report, forced removal of evicted tenants by marshals decreased 41% between 2019 and 2013, the year the city began providing legal representation to some residents facing eviction.
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Researchers see similar success in other cities across the country with right to counsel laws. They’ve also found such programs can provide cities a substantial cost savings.
For every dollar Baltimore spends on free legal representation, it saves the city and state $6.24 that would have been spent on homeless shelters and housing programs to help people who were evicted.
Legal counsel is not provided in any Arizona county, but a few jurisdictions have used pandemic relief funding from the federal government to provide free legal assistance to renters.
Pima County allocated $2 million and hired a former court attorney to create an Emergency Eviction Legal Services program to provide legal support.
Phoenix has partnered with Community Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm. The City Council has allocated more than $1 million in pandemic relief money to the program.
Phoenix Deputy Human Services Director Susan Hallett said the program balances the scales of justice by making sure tenants are fully educated about the eviction process and know their rights.
“In order for someone to receive procedural justice or procedural fairness, they have to know what the rules are, what the game requirements are, and most individuals don’t understand that from a legal perspective,” Hallett said.
Hallett said the program can provide advocacy and assistance to tenants who are on the verge of eviction as well as legal representation in court if the renter has already been served.
She said renters often only contact the city for assistance after receiving an eviction filing, but the city hopes to educate and encourage tenants to apply before the court is involved to see if a better resolution can be found.
Phoenix’s partnership with Community Legal Services is set to expire in September, but Hallett said her team is looking for potential long-term funding sources.
Groninger said cities, counties and the state are able to use up to 10% of their rental assistance to fund legal assistance for renters. While a few places, like Pima County and Phoenix, are doing this, “legal help should be available for tenants regardless of which ZIP code they live in,” she said.
“A robust, statewide program, which allocates funding for legal representation and nonlawyer advocacy, would help Arizona transition through the current eviction crisis to addressing post-COVID needs related to repairing tenant credit, educating tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities and resolving potential evictions before they happen,” she said.
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.
AUTHOR: Jessica Boehm