“My rent isn’t the only thing I have to pay.”
Gov. Doug Ducey announced last week the state would push back its delay on serving coronavirus-related eviction orders from July 22 to Oct. 31.
This means that, while people can still receive eviction judgments for not paying rent, constables won’t be able to force them to leave their homes until November 1.
But while pushing back the date will save thousands of renters from losing stable housing in the middle of the summer, the root problem remains— economic fallout of the pandemic has left them unable to afford housing.
While some Arizonans have been able to receive help through unemployment insurance, rental assistance, stimulus checks, and other relief programs, many have faced difficulty in actually accessing these funds.
For example, some people have waited months to receive unemployment payments, while some still have yet to receive their $1,200 stimulus checks.
But despite these setbacks, tenants are still on the hook for rent, late fees, and court and attorney fees—plus all of their other bills—if their landlords file an eviction.
A Struggle to Catch Up
One Phoenix woman who appeared at her eviction hearing last week explained how this snowballing debt is leaving her feeling hopeless.
“I had two jobs, and they were both affected by the COVID. And I presented the leasing office my documentation at the beginning of April. Now it took me awhile to get my unemployment and my stimulus so in the meantime I was falling behind,” she explained to the justice of the peace. “And I don’t have a problem with paying it, but I need a reasonable payment plan because by them adding on all these fees and late charges and things like that, the balance is extremely high.”
Because she was unable to pay, the judge granted an eviction. The woman was left having to work with her property managers on a plan to pay off nearly $7,000, or be evicted once the protection ends.
Because of this struggle to catch up, many renters are still expected to be kicked out of their homes come October.
RELATED: Pandemic Unemployment Benefits Expire This Month — But Some Arizonans Still Can’t Go Back to Work
“A delay in the enforcement is not a delay in the eviction. Even with a delay, folks will lose their homes,” a spokesman for the Phoenix Tenants’ Union said in a statement to The Copper Courier.
“We are looking at the biggest displacement of people in the history of the state, and of the nation, if we take into account other states who failed to put in place protections for tenants.”
On top of struggling to receive normally available assistance, the federal government’s extra $600 weekly unemployment payment is expected to expire at the end of this month. This would leave Arizonans returning to a maximum of just $240 per week.
“I’m a little confused as to when the end of the month comes and the CARES Act money doesn’t continue,” the woman said in her eviction hearing. “Now you’re just back down to the regular unemployment benefits; that’s going to put people further behind … so I don’t know what to do,” the woman said. “I have money … but [a potential payment plan] has to be something conducive because my rent isn’t the only thing I have to pay.”
Hope for More Assistance
But while the unemployment boost may be ending, housing advocates are hoping to ramp up distribution of rent and utility assistance to hopefully help people catch up on payments by the end of October.
Cynthia Zwick, executive director of nonprofit Wildfire AZ, said her organization was hired by the city of Phoenix to help give out millions in aid.
“Really our goal is to get as much of the assistance into out to the community that’s in need of it,” she told The Copper Courier, “and so [Ducey’s extension] gives us a bit of extra time to be able to do that.”
Tenants can apply for the city’s funds for up to $3,300 in rent and $300 each for gas, water, and electric.
RELATED: What Could Happen When Arizona’s Eviction Moratorium Ends
Zwick noted that this relief money goes directly to landlords and utility providers, rather than the tenants themselves.
Renters who apply for this money can also still apply for Arizona Department of Housing (ADOH) assistance.
The ADOH funds have hit some stumbling blocks along the way––as of July 20, 46% of the more than 18,000 applications the agency received were still under review.
But changes from the state including approving funding to hire more staff to help with applications and reducing the amount of documentation needed to apply are aimed at increasing the speed of processing these requests.
Larger Problems Remain
But no matter how much relief money can be doled out, Zwick said the main takeaway from the situation is that Arizona needs long-term solutions.
“I don’t know that we’ll have the issue under control [by Oct. 31],” she said, “because I think the issue is just far larger than the funding we have available right now and the availability of affordable housing for so many families. But I think it will be helpful.”
Part of the problem is that even when Arizonans are employed, they make too little to afford rent.
RELATED: Coronavirus Is Exposing Why the Affordable Housing Crisis Is Also a Healthcare Crisis
“I think one of the things this crisis has shown us is that we have not only an affordable housing crisis,” Zwick said, “but we also have a number of families that are making minimum wage, which is a wage that’s really insufficient to support an individual, much less a family.”
A recent report found that the average person living in Arizona must make $21 per hour to be able to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The state’s minimum wage is $12 per hour.
Zwick added that she would like to see leaders use the pandemic as a reason to address structural issues and develop a plan so the public is better prepared for future crises.
The current COVID-19 has left too many families in a “terrifying” situation, Zwick said.
“We’re not talking about losing your power for a month,” she said. “We’re talking about losing your home.”