constable writing on paper against inside wall of a home
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One woman said she was calling into her hearing from the hospital, where she had recently been taken off a ventilator.

Eviction hearings are continuing in Arizona even as Americans prepare for Thanksgiving. 

There are 799 of them scheduled in Maricopa County alone in the days before the holiday. 

One by one, tenants described their situation during a virtual hearing Monday. Many were still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. 

One woman said she was phoning the court from the hospital, where she had recently been taken off a ventilator. She said she had been trying to take care of payments through her daughter, but was told she needed a power of attorney document allowing her daughter to act for her. She wasn’t expected to leave the hospital for another two to three weeks. 

Another said her husband was just getting back to work after he was hit by a bus at the airport and then was laid off due to the pandemic. She had also recently gone back to work, and the couple was working to make up their rental payments. 

A man asked to cut in the virtual line and have his case heard early because he was on the phone at work and his boss was getting angry. He recently got the job and was desperate to keep the 25 hours of work he had there. 

Others described issues with the system during their hearings. Some said they were confused about the process and didn’t know what was already in place to help them. And one woman said her landlord still hadn’t received her rental assistance check despite having waited 30 days. 

Federal resources are in place to help those impacted by the pandemic, but oftentimes people still end up in court due to reasons like not being aware of the full process, having trouble communicating with their landlords, or waiting weeks for their rental assistance to come through. 

The process has been confusing for judges, too, who are left to interpret the federal guidance. Previously, under Arizona’s eviction moratorium, justices of the peace could issue eviction judgments, but they wouldn’t actually be served until the protection ended. The state’s order ended Oct. 31 and was replaced with the CDC’s protection. 

Judge Anna Huberman, a Maricopa County justice of the peace who presides over eviction hearings, told The Copper Courier last month that the changes have been a “roller coaster of information.” She said judges weren’t sure what to do at first, but for now they’re either continuing to issue judgments with delayed writs like before, or they just push cases back until the new year. 

But some cases aren’t being treated as they should under the CDC order. The Arizona Republic reported that hundreds of tenants may have been evicted from their homes and charged late fees despite having legal protection. 

As of Nov. 20, more than 7,800 state aid applications were under review. Only 24% of the applications were approved for assistance, as the majority were determined to be incomplete or withdrawn, which means the applicant discontinued the eligibility process.

Keeping Tenants in Their Homes

While some evictions unrelated to COVID-19 are proceeding as normal, there are protections in place for those impacted by the pandemic. 

If a person’s health or job was affected by the virus, they can take advantage of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium that lasts through the end of the year. 

This allows people to stay in their homes as long as they can show they’ve applied for rental assistance and provide their landlord with a copy of the CDC declaration explaining the situation. 

Tenants can apply for assistance through the Arizona Department of Housing, which partners with local agencies to process applications and distribute the aid. 

Renters can also look to their cities, towns, or counties for help. Some offer separate assistance programs for their residents, and tenants can apply to both the state and local programs. 

There are also some programs available only to veterans, including Helping Hands for Freedom and Operation Homefront, while the Resident Relief Foundation is offering aid to anyone facing imminent eviction.  

Some nonprofits like The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army also have relief available.

Eviction Rates Could Worsen as COVID Cases Spike

The CDC’s order is quickly approaching its Dec. 31 expiration. 

According to the Aspen Institute’s latest report, 470,000 to 771,000 Arizonans are at risk of eviction come January. That’s 204,000 to 335,000 households, or 22% to 39% of the state’s total households. 

Those numbers could grow even larger as the virus’s spread worsens in the state and the country. 

State and federal officials have warned that people gathering and traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday has the potential to spike cases to levels not seen yet in the US. Every state except Hawaii is already seeing what health experts consider “uncontrolled spread” of the disease and Arizona reported that the number of new COVID cases Monday rivaled summer peak numbers with no sign of a slowdown. 

People who get sick or have to take care of a sick loved one may be forced to leave their jobs, if they are not one of the 288,000 Arizonans already unemployed. And, as some schools return online, some people may have to stay home to take care of kids.  

Gov. Doug Ducey has said Arizona will not shut down businesses again, but more lay-offs could be coming as if some places voluntarily choose to close, as they did earlier this year when numbers rose. Community advocates have said they are worried about what will happen come January if additional aid isn’t approved. But it looks there are no plans for another stimulus bill in sight—Congress is on Thanksgiving recess as 12 million Americans are expected to lose their unemployment payments by Dec. 26.