Phoenix has provided almost double the relief to renters impacted by COVID-19 in roughly a month than the Arizona Department of Housing has in nearly five months, government data shows.
The city program is processing applications at least twice as fast as the state, in part because of easier application requirements, a wider pool of employees to review applications and lessons learned from hiccups in the state program, officials said.
“The council really wanted this money in the hands of people as quickly as possible,” Phoenix Human Services Department spokesperson Tamra Ingersoll said.
Additional tenants have received help through a new Maricopa County program.
“This assistance is critical,” Maricopa County Human Services Department Director Bruce Liggett said. “Many families are under stress.”
The Arizona Department of Housing in late March launched a $5 million eviction prevention fund for tenants struggling to pay rent because of the pandemic.
But housing advocates and landlords worry the state aid hasn’t moved fast enough, with some renters waiting months for help.
Safety-net programs, many of which were stretched thin before the pandemic, have struggled to expand their operations quickly enough to distribute the influx of aid, said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Wildfire, a non-profit helping to process rental applications.
“There was a network of organizations doing great work for a long time with very little funding, and suddenly we’ve (received) all this money,” she said. “The expectation is they’ll be able to get it done really, really fast, and that’s just not practical … because the infrastructure has largely remained the same.”
Will there be enough help to go around?
The demand for help from renters is enormous, according to county and city officials.
“We’re seeing a tremendous need,” Liggett said.
Maricopa County and Phoenix launched their programs about a month ago with a combined $50 million in federal funding. The county only assists renters, while the city program helps both renters and homeowners.
In Maricopa County, about 320 of 2,400 applications submitted by renters have been approved, totaling nearly $1 million in aid as of Aug. 14, according to a county report.
In Phoenix, about 1,040 of 8,000 renter-submitted applications have been approved, totaling about $4.7 million in assistance as of Aug. 21, officials said.
That compares to the state program, where close to 1,600 of nearly 23,000 renter-submitted applications have been approved, totaling about $2.5 million in help as of Aug. 21, according to state records.
It’s possible that many tenants will receive no help.
Already, renters have requested $7 million more in assistance from the state than is available. The Phoenix program is seeing similar trends.
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“Unless Congress or the state provides some additional funding, there’s still going to be a crisis,” Zwick said. “It’s unavoidable, and that’s what’s scary.”
Facing dire consequences
The consequences can be dire for tenants waiting months for rental aid — as well as for landlords missing out on payments during the state’s moratorium on pandemic-related evictions.
Some tenants say they have been harassed by property managers, packed their belongings in anticipation of getting kicked out and become homeless.
Chris Frisby, 44, lost his job as general manager of a moving company after the pandemic hit. He quickly applied for rental assistance, but didn’t hear back from the state for four months and fell through the cracks of the eviction moratorium. Frisby lost his apartment and started sleeping on the street.
“I’ve never had to be out of work in my entire life,” he said. “I was just trying to do what was right for my landlords, trying to get them some money … I understand they need to make a living too. But what happens to us?”
Landlords have sued the state, challenging the moratorium and saying the governor hasn’t done enough to save them from foreclosure. The state recently launched a $5 million landlord assistance fund.
“After five months of the state doing almost nothing to help property owners, we are at a breaking point,” Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, who heads the Arizona Multihousing Association, recently said.
Liggett shared two stories of tenants helped by the county’s rental relief program.
An older, single woman who ran a restaurant lost her job and couldn’t pay rent, he said. Then she tested positive for the virus. When she learned the county would help, she cried and promised to one day pay it back, he said.
A father of two was laid off from a warehouse and their mother couldn’t work while quarantining after exposure to COVID-19. The family said the experience was “beyond stressful” but they were getting back on their feet because of the aid, Liggett said.
There are “many stories like this,” he said. “This is what drives us to do our work.”
Lowering barriers to aid
There are three potential reasons the Phoenix program has helped tenants more quickly than the state and county, Zwick said: A wider pool of employees reviewing applications, lower application requirements and a fixed aid amount.
While the state and Maricopa County are relying on a group of charities and government offices across the state — known as community action agencies — to review applications, Phoenix has added to that mix other non-profits to help with the load, Zwick said.
It’s also easier to qualify, she said.
“The Phoenix program is getting money to people facing losing their home faster because it has fewer requirements,” Zwick said. “We got rid of onerous requirements for eligibility.”
Phoenix residents need to show they are residents, have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and are lawfully in the state to receive rental or mortgage aid, she said. There are no income limits.
Phoenix provides a set amount of $3,300 in rental assistance, plus up to $900 for utilities to every approved applicant.
One advantage the state and county have over Phoenix is an online application. Currently, Phoenix requires renters to call or email one of nine organizations to apply, but an online system is in the works.
Maricopa County’s requirements are more involved.
An applicant must live in the county outside of Mesa or Phoenix (which have their own aid programs), have financial hardship or an elderly household member and meet income limits. The renter must provide proof of hardship, proof of income, a photo ID, a lease agreement and paperwork from the landlord.
The county provides a set amount of up to $4,500 in assistance and, in some cases, help to pay utilities.
The Arizona Department of Housing recently reduced its paperwork requirements to speed up approvals, according to spokesperson Janelle Johnsen. Nearly 40% of applications have been in limbo because renters were missing documentation.
The state housing department will now accept more forms of documentation and tenants no longer have to pay 30% of their income toward rent, according to the state’s website. Applicants still must meet income limits and provide a state-issued photo ID, lease and proof of at least a 10% loss of income related to COVID-19.
The state is also speeding the review process by allowing Maricopa County to process thousands of state applications in tandem with its own program under its own requirements, Liggett said.
“We’re hopeful the Community Action Agencies can get through the backlog of applications,” Johnsen said.
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How to apply for help
Here’s more information on applying for assistance with the state, county and Phoenix:
State rental aid: https://housing.az.gov/general-public/eviction-prevention-assistance
Maricopa County rental aid: https://www.maricopa.gov/5583/COVID-Crisis-Rental-Assistance
Phoenix rental, mortgage or utility help: https://wildfireaz.org/phxcares/
Renters must follow 4 steps
Arizona renters hurt by COVID-19 who can’t pay landlords are facing an important deadline to qualify for eviction relief.
By Saturday, tenants must follow four steps to remain in their homes until the eviction moratorium ends on Oct. 31, according to the governor’s order:
Re-notify the landlord of their hardship.
Show proof of their ongoing hardship.
Request a payment plan from their landlord.
Show they have completed an application for rental aid.
Renters can download forms for each step in English and Spanish at https://clsaz.org/covid-19/.
Tenants who do not meet the Saturday deadline should follow the steps as soon as possible, Maricopa County Chief Constable Mike Branham said. If a renter is visited by a Maricopa County constable before completing all the steps, they can ask for more time, though it isn’t guaranteed, he said.
Officials recommend keeping copies of the records and submitting documents by email or certified mail to a landlord so the tenant has proof.
It’s important to have proof of each step, said Pamela Bridge, of Community Legal Services, a non-profit that provides free legal assistance to renters.
For instance, renters should take a screenshot of a completed rental-aid application or keep a confirmation email, she said.
Community action agencies are already bracing for a surge of requests for help before the deadline and are working to help tenants get the documents they need, Zwick said.
Landlords can still file for eviction
Under the governor’s moratorium, a landlord may still file for eviction against a tenant and a judge can grant the eviction, but a constable is supposed to let the tenant stay if they follow the paperwork requirements.
If a landlord goes to court and receives an eviction order, a constable will be scheduled to visit, usually within a few days or up to a week.
Tenants should be home to show the moratorium paperwork. A renter who needs to run out for an errand or another reason can notify the constable’s office and provide a return time. Maricopa County constable phone numbers are available here: https://www.maricopa.gov/303/Constables.
Tenants can also put a note on the door stating that they have been affected by COVID-19, are eligible for the governor’s eviction moratorium, have provided the necessary documents to the landlord and will return soon.
Meanwhile, the county pledged to continue improving its program to help more renters.
“We’re going to monitor this program very closely,” Liggett said. “If we find out there are some barriers that need to be changed, we’re going to eliminate those and make adjustments as needed.”
Are you a renter or landlord affected by COVID-19? Do you need help? Do you have a question?
Contact housing reporter Catherine Reagor at Catherine.Reagor@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8040. Follow her on Twitter @CatherineReagor.
Contact consumer reporter Rebekah L. Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders.
AUTHOR: Rebekah L. Sanders and Catherine Reagor