Arizona’s COVID-19 rental assistance program is so backlogged that employees are reviewing applications that tenants submitted as far back as April.
If thousands of renters don’t get help by next week, they could lose their homes after Gov. Doug Ducey’s eviction moratorium expires July 22.
The Arizona Department of Housing announced it would simplify the application process and hire more reviewers, after it became clear the aid program was moving at a glacial pace.
But the changes in the last month have barely made a dent in the mountain of applications, according to state data. Renters continue to submit more applications than are processed.
Of the nearly 18,000 tenants who have applied for aid, less than 1,200 have received help. Nearly 80% of funding, or roughly $3.9 million, remains unspent.
When the department launched the Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance Fund on March 30, it farmed applications out for review to community action agencies across the state. But the charitable organizations already were overwhelmed by requests for help from Arizonans.
The Pima County Community Action Agency, for example, has approved 116 applications in about three months, according to state data.
“I wish that we had more staff, and more funding especially,” the Pima County agency director, Manira Cervantes, said. “We’re still assigning cases from late April. … We have folks who have been hanging tight since then.”https://e.infogram.com/f8cd88e1-8260-4a7d-acfd-1505549a84fa?src=embed#async_embed
Many applications are ‘incomplete’
Not only are approvals slow, but a large number of renters have failed to receive assistance because their applications were deemed incomplete.
More than 7,100 applications, or about 40% of the total, are missing required documentation, the data shows.
Tenants must provide proof they have lost at least 10% of their income during the pandemic. That means showing pay stubs, layoff letters, unemployment income and stimulus checks. Applicants also must provide their lease and a driver’s license or state ID, plus meet income caps and cost-sharing requirements.
Another complication: Only the tenant who directly lost income is allowed to apply, Cervantes said. A husband who applies for help because his wife was laid off, for instance, wouldn’t be eligible.
“We’re working with a policy put in place by our funder (the state of Arizona), not us,” Cervantes said. “The Department of Housing has definitely made changes to the policy since this first began, but it’s taking time.”https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/pphx/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html
Ducey says most renters aren’t in danger of eviction
It’s likely that a portion of applicants no longer need help because they have worked out payment plans with their landlords, found other jobs or started receiving unemployment benefits.
The National Multifamily Housing Council and RealPage reported in June that 87% of sampled Arizona apartment tenants paid rent on time, similar to last year.
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However, the data failed to include students, small apartment complexes, room renters, budget-hotel residents, and single-family homes and condos owned by investors, potentially missing struggling renters.
Gov. Ducey recently suggested few renters would lose their homes after his eviction moratorium expires.
He cited an informal survey of landlords done by the Arizona Multihousing Association, which estimated 1% of renters who were behind on rent were in danger of eviction because they hadn’t communicated with their landlords. Another 10-15% of renters were in touch with their landlords or had worked out payment plans, the association estimated.
The governor blamed tenants at risk of eviction for not using unemployment assistance to cover rent.
“We don’t want to see people get evicted,” Ducey said, but “if someone is receiving $840 in (unemployment) assistance from the government and not remitting that for their rent, that’s not the right thing.”
Thousands of struggling Arizonans have failed to receive unemployment benefits, whether because of the backlog of claims, having to resubmit paperwork or because they aren’t eligible. And $600 per week of the aid is set to go away July 25 under the federal CARES Act. https://e.infogram.com/c91c200b-cc4f-4570-996f-f9cd2f37c3b7?src=embed#async_embed
Renters fear falling off eviction cliff
Tucson renters Cayden and Brittany Devito are among those desperately seeking rental assistance.
The couple were laid off after the governor issued the stay-at-home order in late March. Cayden, 25, was cooking at a restaurant. Brittany, 28, was working in a warehouse.
Only a few weeks before, the Devitos had moved into an apartment where their two service dogs could play in the yard and Cayden could grow peanuts, zucchini, watermelon and tomatoes in her crate garden.
The couple had spent a year couch-surfing and living out of their car while they searched for jobs and saved money, Cayden said. They could only afford a bed and some kitchenware when they moved in.
“We were finally back on our feet,” Cayden said of that brief time before the pandemic. “Then COVID happened, and it stopped everything.”
The wives applied for unemployment assistance, but because both had previously worked as Uber drivers, they were told they didn’t qualify, Cayden said. They also didn’t receive stimulus checks, she said.
Arizona launched a new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in May for gig workers, independent contractors and the self-employed, but the program has faced confusion and delays.
Brittany eventually landed another warehouse job, which requires a two-hour bus commute each day, but it pays $432 less per month, pay stubs show.
The couple tried to work out a payment plan with their landlord, Cayden said. He demanded $3,000 upfront of the roughly $4,000 due.
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Deadline for evictions nears
Housing officials hope to help people like the Devitos before they’re kicked out.
The Department of Housing has launched a call center and hired temporary staff to contact applicants with incomplete applications to see if they still need rental assistance, spokeswoman Janelle Johnsen said. Staffers answer questions and help to upload documentation.
Although much of the state money to help renters remains unspent, the total assistance tenants have asked for — nearly $9 million — is almost double the amount the governor set aside.
In the coming weeks, counties and cities across Arizona are expected to launch their own rental assistance programs using federal money, Johnsen said, and a list will be posted on the housing department’s website by mid-July.
The Pima County Community Action Agency is pushing hard to complete its review of applications by the end of July, Cervantes said.
That would be after Ducey’s eviction delay expires.
But a backlog of evictions in the justice courts could mean more time before tenants are kicked out, Cervantes said. And the agency is trying to work with Pima County constables to identify renters at risk of eviction who are waiting to be approved for assistance and may be able to pay soon.
‘We just don’t know what to do anymore’
The Devitos sought help from Arizona’s rental assistance program on June 25.
Their application could take weeks to be reviewed since so many other applications are ahead in line, Cervantes said.
Each night, the Devitos sit on their bed or on Home Depot buckets they use for chairs, worrying about losing their home, Cayden said.
They’ve begun packing up their belongings in anticipation of getting thrown out July 23.
Every apartment they look at wants too much money down or denies them because of the eviction on their record that is less than two weeks away from being enforced.
“We’re hoping somebody will take us,” Cayden said. “We just don’t know what to do anymore.”
Are you a renter or landlord affected by COVID-19? Do you need help? Do you have a question? Contact consumer reporter Rebekah L. Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders.
AUTHOR: Rebekah L. Sanders