'She just wanted their money': How Arizona tenants with rental aid are getting evicted anyway

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Arizona cities and counties received hundreds of millions of federal dollars to provide rental relief to struggling tenants during the pandemic.

But thousands of Arizona renters were evicted – and will continue to be – because the eviction process moves faster than the government is delivering aid.

Arizona law allows a landlord to initiate an eviction as soon as five days after missed rent. Rental assistance can take weeks or even months to get to a renter.

When eviction moratoriums were in place, judges would postpone most evictions if a renter had applied for rental assistance and was awaiting aid. But since the final moratorium ended in late August, evictions have continued without pause.

Eviction filings climbed back up to about 91% of pre-pandemic levels in the first three months of 2022, despite an unprecedented amount of available rental assistance, alarming renter advocates.

Evictions are expected to continue to increase this year unless drastic measures are taken to speed up the dispersal of rental assistance or major changes are made to state law to slow down Arizona’s eviction timeline.

Neither of these seem likely.

Five months to get assistance

Francine DiSaia and her 16-year-old son have been sleeping wherever they can find a couch or spare bedroom since they were evicted in October.

In April 2021, DiSaia lost her job and fell behind on her monthly payments at the central Phoenix condo she was renting. She was able to stay in her home because of the federal eviction moratorium and applied for rental assistance through Phoenix in May.

The final eviction moratorium in Arizona ended in late August when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down. DiSaia was still waiting for Phoenix to process her rental assistance application, but her landlord moved forward with eviction.

Phoenix awarded DiSaia rental assistance the day a constable was set to remove her from the condo. Her landlord applied the assistance entirely to her rental debt, and the constable proceeded to lock DiSaia out.

The Phoenix emergency rental assistance program requires landlords to consent to not evict a renter for 30 days.

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“My thoughts were the pandemic rental assistance was designed to keep people in their homes,” DiSaia said. “(The landlord) didn't want me there. She just wanted their money.”

A Phoenix spokesperson said the Human Services Department offered DiSaia’s landlord three months of additional rental assistance so she could continue to live there, but that the landlord no longer wished to rent to Ms. DiSaia due to an inconsistent payment history and was moving forward with an eviction and the related judgement.”

The spokesperson said that Phoenix paid DiSaia’s rental debt so she would not have an eviction on her record and told DiSaia the city would provide three months of rental assistance when she finds a new place to stay.

Six months later, DiSaia is still looking for an apartment she can afford in metro Phoenix.

How much rental aid has been given out?

The federal government allocated more than $250 million for rental assistance in metro Phoenix over the past year.

More than $170 million made it to renters and landlords by mid-April 2022.

The remaining money is still available and in high demand but often arrives too late to stop an eviction.

“There appears to be enough relief money to prevent most every eviction," said Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association. "Government agencies must act faster to process the thousands of applications that remain pending."

Representatives from rental assistance programs in Maricopa County and Mesa said it takes about 10 to 14 days to process a complete rental assistance application. But it can take much longer if applications are missing documents, which is typical.

The federal government requires a significant amount of information and documentation to qualify for rental aid, which increases the processing time.

The feds have eased some requirements, but both tenant and landlord groups are still encouraging national and local governments to ease the process to get money out quicker.

In Phoenix, more than 5,500 applications were backlogged in early February, with about 500 new applications coming in each week, spokesperson Kristin Couturier said. By the end of March, the backlog had dropped to 2,719.

Couturier said about half of submitted applications do not include all of the necessary paperwork, which holds up the process.

Phoenix set up an emergency rental assistance phone number in early February for people who expect an "imminent eviction crisis."

People who have received an eviction summons, have a scheduled court date, received a judgment or have already been evicted can call 602-262-7935 for expedited assistance.

Changes to eviction system unlikely

The slow pace of rental assistance would be less concerning if the Arizona eviction process didn’t move so quickly – but slowing down evictions is even less likely that speeding up the bureaucratic rental aid process.

“We need to give tenants facing eviction more time in Arizona,” said Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation for Community Legal Services. “The process is so fast. Landlord attorneys know how to navigate the system quickly.”

Landlord groups, like the Arizona Multihousing Association, typically oppose any law changes that would limit property owners' ability to collect rent.

LeVinus said some landlords went unpaid during the pandemic eviction moratoriums and that lawmakers should be focused on rental assistance, not limiting landlord’s rights to collect rent.

“Property owners have kept a roof over peoples' heads while getting paid no rent and paying their own payroll, property taxes and maintenance costs. At some point, every property owner will need to be paid or they will need to take action to protect their investment,” LeVinus said.

Arizona lawmakers have done little to disrupt the evictions status quo in recent years, and the Republican-led Legislature appears unlikely to make any substantive changes this session.

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 jessica.boehm@gannett.com or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona evictions: Tenants with rental aid still lose their homes