The Law is Stacked in Landlords’ Favor. This Pima County Program Helps Balance the Scales.

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By Jessica Swarner

June 7, 2022

“I didn’t even know that this kind of help existed. So all I can say is it’s a wonderful program for Pima County to do.” 

Tucson resident Melba Mediz, who is retired and lives on Social Security income, almost lost her home after her sister died of COVID-19. 

The house Mediz and her daughter lived in was under her sister’s name, and her sister mostly took care of the $1,300 monthly payments.

“I didn’t have any other way of getting more money even though we tried so hard to watch everything, but with inflation and everything else going on, it was really difficult,” Mediz told The Copper Courier. 

When Mediz was in court for eviction proceedings, she said the judge asked her why she hadn’t applied for rental assistance, and she responded she didn’t know it was available. 

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The judge then connected her to Pima County’s new Emergency Eviction Legal Services program, or EELS.

Mediz said she applied for aid and ended up receiving enough money to pay her back rent plus three months in advance. The landlord accepted the payout, she said, and the advance payments gave her and her daughter enough time to plan ahead. 

“I didn’t even know that this kind of help existed,” Mediz said. “So all I can say is it’s a wonderful program for Pima County to do.” 

Legal Services

Pima County used part of its federal COVID-19 funding to launch EELS in August 2021. On top of connecting tenants to rental assistance, it also directs them to free legal counsel, food pantries, help with utility payments, and other resources.  

Andy Flagg, deputy director of the Pima County community and workforce development department, said the EELS program has allocated COVID relief funding through September of 2025. 

Pima County is currently contracted with five law firms to provide tenants facing eviction with assistance. 

While 15 cities and three states have passed a right to legal counsel for renters, none have done so in Arizona. 

“Almost all landlords are represented and almost all tenants are not. And the only resources that have been available to tenants … are the legal aid organizations that exist, and they do a great job, but just haven’t had the resources,” Flagg said. 

Low-income tenants who contact EELS can receive a free one-consultation with a lawyer. If the lawyer believes the tenant has a case, the lawyer can choose to fully represent them in court proceedings, with the county paying the legal fees. 

Flagg said even if tenants don’t have a case to avoid eviction, the consultation can still help them better understand their rights and give them advice for moving forward. 

As of April 21, 666 tenants had received consultations through EELS and 159 had been fully represented. 

Better Chances With Counsel 

Zaira Emiliana Livier, executive director for People’s Defense Initiative, which heads the Tucson Tenants Union, said 90 to 95% of eviction cases are won by landlords, who almost always have representation while tenants do not. 

“It’s a very kind of one-sided system right now,” she told The Copper Courier. “We’ve had reports of people showing up to court without representation and not really being allowed to represent themselves because they really don’t have the lingo or the things that they need.” 

The People’s Defense Initiative helped come up with the framework for the EELS program and pushed for the county to adopt it. 

“Having an attorney when you’re going through eviction is, we understand it’s a very, very small safety net, but it’ll make a difference for a lot of people,” Livier said. “It’s … just one little step towards our larger goal of making sure that everybody has housing, because we believe that housing is a human right.” 

Flagg said last year the county was seeing a favorable result for tenants in a little over 50% of the cases in which they received representation. 

“That might mean they win the case. They get a judgment in their favor. It might mean the case gets dismissed. It might mean they work out a settlement with the landlord,” Flagg said. “So there’s different ways that they get resolved favorably, but we were seeing it about 50% of the time, which is better than what you would expect.” 

Trying to Lessen the Impact

Social worker Nahrin Jabro worked with the EELS program for about five months before moving to another county office. She said the service was “definitely helpful.” 

But, she said, the program is a small part of the state’s overall systems. 

“Because of Arizona state statutes and how much power landlords have over tenants, it was still very, very difficult to help people,” Jabro said. “People were—most of the time—inevitably going to be evicted, and it was just kind of figuring out how much time they had and helping them figure out a plan of where to go.” 

Some of the cases the social worker remembers most involved families with children. 

“They get evicted and the constable’s like, ‘OK, you have 15 minutes to get all your stuff out,’ and you see the kid pulling out their toys and the family has nowhere to go,” she said. “And most of the time we were able to put families in these situations in a hotel, but sometimes we weren’t because there was no space.” 

Jabro said when it became clear an eviction was moving forward, EELS workers would try to help the tenants find other forms of housing. 

“If there was nothing that we could do for them,” she said, “the least that we could do was hear them out and empathize with their situation and let them know what their options are, let them know what the process was gonna look like and let them know exactly when they were going to be evicted.” 

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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