The state of Arizona and some metro Phoenix cities are withholding public records related to COVID-19 rental aid that could reveal key information about the effectiveness of the assistance programs.
The Arizona Republic requested the full addresses of rental properties that received rental assistance from Arizona, Maricopa County, Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale.
Maricopa County was the only government entity to provide the information. The other jurisdictions either withheld the addresses completely or redacted unit numbers of multifamily properties.
The Arizona Republic requested the full addresses to compare them with addresses in other databases to make sure landlords weren’t double-dipping in multiple funds for the same rental and to compare them with county eviction records to see if landlords filed for evictions despite receiving aid.
A Republic analysis found that nearly half of the 633 Maricopa County properties that received assistance from the Arizona Rental Property Owner Preservation Fund filed for evictions during the pandemic. An eviction filing signals an intent to evict but does not necessarily mean a tenant was evicted.
The majority of those eviction filings occurred at apartment complexes with multiple units. Because the state redacted unit numbers from the addresses it provided, The Republic was unable to discern whether the landlords had evicted tenants who had received assistance or others at the same complex.
“You would think that the state and municipalities would want to know whether after giving this relief money to landlords whether they had gone ahead and evicted people anyway. That seems to me a vital piece of information,” said Dan Barr, a First Amendment lawyer in Phoenix.
Privacy was the main reason cited by the state and cities for withholding parts of the rental address.
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“We cannot articulate a need for you to have the specific number for each unit that outweighs the tenants’ privacy interest, which will lead to — at best — embarrassment of the tenants or — at worst — harassment of the tenants, both of which are an invasion of their privacy,” Arizona Department of Housing Director Carol Ditmore said in a letter to The Republic.
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However, the Department of Housing provided The Republic with the full addresses of single-family rental homes for which landlords received aid. It only withheld address information at apartment complexes.
Barr said the inconsistency was illogical because residents have the same right to privacy whether they live in a single-family house or an apartment complex.
Barr also said he believes Ditmore’s concerns about embarrassment or harassment are inadequate reasons to withhold the address information.
“We’re living in a world right now where a whole hell of a lot of people are getting government assistance,” he said.
Barr equated The Republic’s request to other journalists’ investigations into the Paycheck Protection Program. The federal program, which was billed as a small business assistance program, provided multimillion-dollar loans to several multibillion-dollar companies, including Shake Shack and the Los Angeles Lakers — both of which ultimately returned the funds after public scrutiny.
“If you’re the Los Angeles Lakers, then you have to explain why you took this money,” Barr said.
Landlords, too, should have to answer to the public if they took government assistance and continued to file to evict their tenants. And government agencies should provide the transparency that would allow that investigation to occur, he said.
“The public has a right to know how its public money is being spent,” Barr said. “And if landlords are pocketing this money and evicting the people anyway, there’s something seriously wrong with the program and certainly with its oversight.”
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
AUTHOR: Jessica Boehm, Ralph Chapoco, and Catherine Reagor