Metro Phoenix eviction filings are climbing back to pre-pandemic levels despite hundreds of millions of dollars in rental aid going to landlords.
Moratoriums helped keep many Valley renters in their homes, but those are over. Now tenants, some still trying to pay back rent after struggling during COVID-19, are also facing skyrocketing rents and wages that aren't keeping up.
And Maricopa County renters who had evictions filed against them during the pandemic are facing record judgments despite hundreds of millions of dollars of rental aid going to landlords.
Housing researchers and tenant advocates say the rent-income gap, the lightning speed of Arizona’s eviction process and a lack of legal support for renters led to an eviction crisis in the Phoenix area that started even before the pandemic.
An Arizona Republic analysis found eviction filings in Maricopa County hit a five-year high in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, February and March of this year, Valley evictions reached about 91% of filings from the first three months of 2019.
About 65,000 Arizona renters believe they will likely be evicted in the next two months, according to the latest Census Pulse Survey.
Advocates and government agencies are working to keep people in their rentals by getting out federal aid faster and providing more legal help.
But Arizona law allows a landlord to initiate an eviction as soon as five days after a tenant misses rent, and the tenant is typically locked out within three weeks of the first filing. Too often, rental aid isn't arriving until after the eviction.
“It’s very concerning when you have millions of dollars being pumped into rent payments and evictions are still climbing,” said Maxine Becker, an attorney and tenant advocate for Phoenix-based Wildfire, a poverty-relief nonprofit.
Tenant legal advocates have been fighting to increase eviction notice periods for years, but with no luck.
“Many things need to be fixed in the eviction process,” said Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation at Phoenix-based Community Legal Services. “We need to slow it down, provide more legal help to tenants, make sure filings are accurate and that tenants know their rights.”
“The scales of justice need to be equal for landlords and tenants,” she said.
What's driving the eviction crisis
As rents shoot up, a new issue is developing. Big increases from $200 to $800 a month are leading to more informal evictions. People can’t afford to stay in their current homes, sending them scrambling for more-difficult-to-find affordable rentals.
Fast-moving evictions mean people can be locked out of their rental within three weeks, giving them little time to recover from medical emergencies, job losses and other reasons they may have a temporary drop in income.
The playing field is far from level, with 88% of landlords filing for evictions hiring lawyers and fewer than 1% of renters getting legal help, according to a Republic analysis of eviction filings since 2015.
Arizona has fewer tenant protections than most states. For example, Arizona has no “just cause” ordinances to prohibit landlords from arbitrarily ending rental agreements with tenants at the end of a lease.
Evictions go on peoples' credit records, making it difficult to rent another place. Metro Phoenix's very competitive rental market makes it even tougher for renters with eviction records.
Despite all the indicators, it's impossible to track exactly how bad the Valley's eviction problem is now. Arizona’s courts have no records of how many people actually are locked out of their homes.
Some are trying to get legislation and court rules passed to make the eviction process better for renters with fee reductions and assistance clearing their credit records.
But Republican legislative leadership has expressed little interest in substantial eviction reform in the past, and Arizona landlord group lobbyists are strong and can help kill bills they don't back.
Without a true picture of the eviction crisis, it's hard to improve the system, but advocates are trying — and their efforts couldn't come at a more important time.
Rent hikes and informal evictions
Anna Cabezas and her two children moved out of her two-bedroom north Phoenix apartment when her landlord said she would evict her because her name wasn’t on the lease. A relative who had moved to California during the pandemic was on the lease.
She was paying $900 a month to rent a two-bedroom and now must pay $1,500 for a one-bedroom in the same neighborhood.
“The landlord threatened to evict us. I was so scared we would be homeless,” said Cabezas, whose husband works in Hong Kong and sends her money.
Metro Phoenix apartment rents soared a record 30% last year. That's the biggest jump for any major metro in the U.S. Rents could climb another 20% in the Valley this year.
Cabezas got legal help from a Valley nonprofit and moved out before her landlord filed to evict her.
Situations like Cabezas’ don’t show up in eviction data because they happen entirely outside of the court system.
Experts estimate such informal evictions can account for half or more of all evictions across the country. But because informal evictions can’t be tracked, it’s difficult to fully account for how many people are losing their homes.
Fast and furious evictions
The swift process to evict in Arizona also concerns tenant advocates.
Landlords seeking an eviction for nonpayment of rent must give their tenants five days' notice. The landlord can serve the five-day notice as early as the day after rent was due. If the renter does not pay during the five days, the landlord can file for eviction.
Shawn McDonough left her job as a recruiter early last year when she was hospitalized after getting COVID-19 for a second time.
She kept up with the almost $1,300 monthly rent for her two-bedroom Mesa apartment until October. About two weeks after missing her first rent payments, her landlord filed to evict her and her teenage son, who has autism.
“I have never faced eviction in my life. It was so scary,” McDonough said. “I couldn’t believe we could be locked out of our home in five days.”
McDonough received last-minute rental aid from Mesa and was able to stay in her apartment, but she’s afraid the filing will still hurt her credit.
Even if renters can stop an eviction before a lockout, an eviction filing on their record can still affect their credit and their ability to find another landlord willing to rent to them.
Arizona's eviction process can move even faster if a landlord files for an immediate eviction because of police activity or property damage. A tenant can be out of in five days if the courts approve that type of eviction.
"Most tenants facing eviction are terrified and don’t know what to do,” Becker said. “It’s such a bleak, traumatic moment of their life. They have to think fast if they have their IDs, phone chargers, medicine or diapers for their baby before they are locked out.”
And landlords can and do file multiple eviction claims against the same tenant. At least 3,164 Maricopa County renters had five or more eviction filings against them in the period examined by The Republic. One renter had 39 eviction filings during the five-year period.
Some of them attend a court hearing to pay up and stay in their homes. Eviction court can be used to collect rent, but it is a costly process for tenants, who must pay not only back rent but legal and late fees.
And judgment amounts soared during the pandemic.
In 2021, the average eviction judgment against a Phoenix-area renter jumped to a record $3,277. That's up 70% from 2019, according to the Maricopa County Justice Courts.
The average judgment was $1,922 in 2019. It climbed to $2,789 in 2020.
Little eviction protection
Arizona doesn’t have “just cause” ordinances for evictions, which prohibit landlords from arbitrarily ending rental agreements with tenants. Landlords can evict renters without a reason when their leases are up, something that may happen more frequently because metro Phoenix’s rapidly rising rents are enticing landlords to get new tenants who are able to pay more.
The lack of a “just cause” measure is one reason Eviction Lab rates Arizona with less than half of a star on its COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. The top rating is five stars.
The research group also dings Arizona for not sealing eviction records and not preventing landlords from reporting missed payment information to credit agencies or prohibiting late fees and rent hikes.
Nevada received almost 4½ stars for its efforts to protect tenants during the pandemic, the highest score of any state. Only six states ranked lower than Arizona.
“Arizona is the wild, wild West for landlords, property management firms and tenants with evictions because there’s little oversight," said Christa Lawcock, a Phoenix agent with Realty Executives and a landlord.
The Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act has rules to regulate rental agreements, but no regulators enforce it, according to the Arizona Department of Housing website.
“The eviction notice period and process we use in Arizona is 99.5% is for the benefit of landlords and .05% for protecting tenants,” said Corinne Cooper, a Tucson landlord, tenant advocate and former law professor.
And the COVID-19 pandemic showed how the process is “wildly out of control,” she said.
“Landlords and their lobbyists have done a brilliant job making sure government and Legislature do their bidding,” she said.
Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association, said, "No one is pro-eviction. Evictions are a last resort – always. Evictions are expensive for property owners and renters alike."
She said the landlord association “continues to work for an even more equitable and more transparent process.”
Legal help for renters hard to find
Arizona doesn’t provide legal help for renters like other states, including Minnesota, Washington and Maryland, do.
About a dozen U.S. cities, including New York, have right-to-counsel laws in place for tenants. Some have eviction diversion programs that include pre-filing mediation or post-filing settlement conferences.
Maricopa and Pima counties both recently launched legal-aid programs, and those lawyers already are besieged with requests from renters for help. The programs are funded with federal COVID-19 relief funds, and it’s not clear if they will continue when the stimulus money runs out.
“Legal assistance is critical for renters facing eviction if they can’t pay rent,” said Chris Groninger, a consumer advocate with the nonprofit Arizona Bar Foundation. “There’s no remedy for them based on laws and rules in Arizona, but there are so many people out there facing homelessness because of those evictions and rising rents.”
Between January 2015 and March 2020, 88% of landlords filing for eviction in Maricopa County had legal representation, according to The Republic’s analysis. Fewer than 1% of renters were represented by an attorney.
The ratio didn't change much during the pandemic.
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Typically, most of a landlord’s attorney costs are passed on to Arizona renters when the landlord gets an eviction judgment. That usually adds at least an extra $50 to $150 onto what a tenant owes.
That’s part of the reason housing advocates and researchers at New America say Maricopa County’s eviction system is tilted toward landlords.
“When I looked at (Maricopa County) eviction court data, I was surprised at the stark gap in who gets a lawyer and who doesn’t, and the impact this has," said Yuliya Panfil, director of New America’s Future of Property Rights Program. "Unsurprisingly, 99% of the cases for which we had judgment information were decided in favor of landlords. To me, this is a clear imbalance that should be rectified.”
Justices of the peace, who hear eviction cases, are elected and don’t have to be lawyers. That means the landlord’s attorney is often the only lawyer in the room during eviction proceedings.
Tenant advocates worry that this can lead to incorrect rulings in favor of landlords.
This was highlighted during the pandemic eviction moratoriums. A 2020 Arizona Republic investigation that found 900 evictions were filed against Maricopa County tenants who likely should have been protected by the federal CARES Act. These illegal evictions were not caught during the judicial process and many were never rectified.
LeVinus said the AMA disagrees with the premise evictions are tilted toward landlords.
Evictions hard to track
National research shows Maricopa County — home to most of metro Phoenix — has one of the highest but least trackable eviction rates in the U.S.
Landlords filed to evict Phoenix-area tenants nearly 400,000 times from 2015-2021, according to The Republic’s analysis.
The true number of Maricopa County evictions is very likely even higher because of missing records, incomplete filings, informal lockouts and tenants who leave after the threat of eviction.
However, just because a landlord filed for eviction does not mean the renter actually was evicted.
The final step of the eviction process is called a writ of restitution, which is a court order that allows a constable to lock tenants out of a rental property. About 92,800 households received writs from 2015 to early 2020.
With an average of 2.5 people living in a rental, that’s about 230,000 people who lost housing through eviction, which is roughly the population of Glendale.
But this is almost surely an undercount of the true number of households evicted.
Justices of the peace issued judgments against tenants more than 226,000 times in the same period. But the court doesn’t track what happens after the judgment, unless a writ is issued.
Some renters move out after they receive an eviction judgment but before a writ is issued. Others are able to pay off their debts and the landlord lets them stay.
The Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts requires the county justice courts to track timing statistics and how long it takes for an eviction case to be heard, said Scott Davis, spokesperson for the Maricopa County Justice Courts. Maricopa County does not have to track or provide eviction outcome information.
Almost one-third of cases did not include judgment information, which makes it impossible to know the outcome.
Some fields tracked by the county are not done consistently across all of the clerks that input data, which makes it difficult to analyze attributes like how many evictions are filed for reasons other than nonpayment of rent.
Eviction Lab, considered the top academic eviction researcher, didn’t include Maricopa County’s eviction rate in its national rankings until recently because not enough accurate data on filings was available. Now, the data only can be updated monthly for metro Phoenix, while data for other large cities can be updated more often.
Legislative help for renters?
Tenant advocates have proposed ways to get Arizona renters more help and provide more legal assistance, but many seem unlikely to make it into law.
Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed legislation to drop the $18 filing fee renters are required to pay to file a response to landlords in Arizona eviction courts.
“Eliminating the fee will help both tenants and landlords,” Becker said.
The fees only generate about $35,000 in annual revenue in Maricopa County, and they add to the court time when tenants file to waive them, Becker pointed out.
“These are folks that are probably living on the margins and for them, an $18 fee could be a big deal,” said Rep. Justin Wilmeth, R-Phoenix, who sponsored the bill. “I don't think penalizing someone for being down is necessarily the best thing to do.”
Wilmeth is sponsoring another bill that hasn't been passed that would seal the court records of eviction cases that were settled before tenants were actually evicted – for example, if renters paid off their debt after the eviction was filed and stayed in the home.
The bill essentially would hide these settled cases from credit reporting agencies so renters would not be dinged for evictions that never actually happened.
“It’s making sure someone who was in that (eviction) process and finally found a way (to pay) ... doesn’t have that bad little moment in time follow them around for seven years," Wilmeth said.
Former State Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, proposed several bills last year to help with Arizona’s affordable housing crisis and the eviction process, including one to seal the records of renters whom landlords filed to evict during the pandemic and require landlords who receive rental aid not to evict.
But none of the bills, backed by multiple Arizona Democratic lawmakers, got a committee hearing.
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., last year introduced legislation to keep evictions off the credit records of renters struggling during the pandemic. But it hasn't passed.
Arizona legislation to reform the eviction process to help landlords who accept partial payments did pass in 2019.
House Bill 2358, in response to a court ruling in favor or a metro Phoenix tenant in an eviction case, carved out a legal exception to allow landlords to accept housing assistance payments and still evict low-income Arizonans, according to the William E. Morris Institute for Justice.
"It's fair to say during the past five years, the Arizona Legislature has not been very friendly to tenants," Morris Institute Director Drew Schaffer said. "Whenever there is a court rule that passes to make the eviction process more fair, landlord attorneys and the AMA counter with legislation to undermine or gut those rules and cases."
Wildfire recently submitted petitions to the Arizona Supreme Court to modify rules to help tenants. One rule request would require landlords to file a satisfaction of an eviction judgment within 30 days after a renter’s debt has been paid.
The poverty-prevention group is also asking for renters to be able to apply for motions to vacate when their judgements are satisfied. Both rule changes would help renters repair their credit records.
“About 25 to 35% of eviction judgments are satisfied but only 4% are vacated,” said Becker.
Veteran Phoenix apartment developer and landlord Reid Butler said evictions for not paying rent during COVID-19 should be looked at like foreclosures during the Great Recession and not hurt people who lost jobs due to a major crisis beyond their control.
During the recession, homeowners received federal aid, credit agencies kept foreclosures on borrowers’ records for shorter periods, and most landlords didn’t turn renters away if they had gone through one.
“Most landlords don’t want to evict, unless they have to,” said Reid, the past chairman of the AMA. “We are in the business of providing homes.”
Showing up for eviction hearings
Another issue with Arizona’s eviction process is many tenants couldn’t make it to hearings within the short time frame after they were notified.
Housing advocates said more tenants in Maricopa County showed up for eviction hearings during the pandemic because they could do it via video or telephone.
About 71% of renters attended their eviction hearings either in person or remotely in 2021, compared with 63% in 2019.
Both tenant and landlord groups support continuing virtual court appearances after the pandemic.
“Arizona’s eviction process is very landlord friendly,” said Valley real estate attorney Patrick MacQueen, who estimates his eviction case clients are split 50/50 between tenants and landlords. "With what we have seen during the past few years, it seems like now might be a good time to change some eviction rules.”
He said one move that could improve the process for both landlords and tenants is to require a “good faith” consultation in the eviction process that would mean both parties must communicate before a landlord files.
MacQueen said that could lead to more negotiations to resolve an eviction with better outcomes for renters.
A spiraling poverty cycle
Evictions can lead to a spiraling cycle of poverty for many, particularly now in metro Phoenix, when finding an affordable rental is tougher than it’s ever been.
“In disadvantaged neighborhoods, eviction is to women what incarceration is to men,” said Matthew Desmond, a principal investigator at Eviction Lab. “Incarceration locks men up, while evictions lock women out.”
People with evictions on their record are often turned down by other landlords, even after paying application fees of $100 or more.
Competition for rentals in metro Phoenix is more intense than it has been decades, so renters getting evicted now have very few choices and most can’t afford all of the required fees.
The Valley’s apartment vacancy rate is below 3% for the first time since the 1970s.
Jamal Wimberly of Phoenix got evicted in October after he was unable to keep up with rising rent prices. He used to pay $600 for a studio apartment. Now it’s hard to find anything under $900.
“I just had to bail on it. I couldn't finish paying out making $15 an hour,” Wimberly said.
Wimberly said he knows he’s luckier than many. He was able to move in with his mom and is currently finishing up trade school, which will boost his salary so he hopefully “won't have to worry about eviction anymore.”
He still owes back rent to his former landlord but hasn’t been able to reach the Glendale rental assistance program yet.
“I still owe money, but I don't know when I'm going to pay them. It's a waiting game for them unless they take it out of my paycheck,” Wimberly said.
His experience illustrates how fixing Arizona’s eviction process will take more than just legislation, additional legal aid and better information for tenants.
“We are always circling back to wages and lack of affordable housing. The eviction process has to be better, and we need more resources for families,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Wildfire. “The infrastructure we never invested in is falling apart now. We can’t just fix it with rental assistance.”
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
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The team behind this series
Reporters: Catherine Reagor, Jessica Boehm, Ralph Chapoco
Visual journalists: Megan Mendoza, Thomas Hawthorne, Meg Potter
Editor: Lita Nadebah Beck
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Metro Phoenix is in an eviction crisis. Here's what needs to be fixed