The Arizona Department of Housing is considering a program that would offer financial and legal help to tenants facing eviction, marking the state’s first significant steps toward addressing an eviction epidemic that exploded more than a decade ago.
If fully implemented, the Eviction Prevention Project would try to stop cases already barreling through the courts by paying missed rents and pointing people to free legal services.
“People don’t know their options. They don’t have any options,” Karia Lee Basta, ADOH’s special-needs program administrator, said at a July public hearing in which the proposal was first announced. “We’ve been trying to work on a collective response to address these high numbers of evictions that are happening.”
A nationwide surge in evictions has hit Arizona particularly hard, spurred by rising rents and cuts to the state’s once-plentiful supply of affordable housing. Last year, Maricopa County alone saw 42,460 eviction judgments, pulling one out of every 14 rental households into a court system that often leaves tenants feeling overwhelmed and overpowered.
Once a tenant is sucked into the system, there are only two ways out: Pay the rent and any added fees, or find a legal technicality. But late fees and court costs stack up fast, and Arizona’s rental laws are dense. Most tenants give up before their case hits a courtroom, leaving a judge with nothing to do but sign an eviction.
ADOH says its proposal is designed to solve both of those issues.
Mostly, it’s a hotline.
Fully realized, the Eviction Prevention Project would install phone lines in offices around the state. Low-income tenants who have already missed rent could then call and be directed down a phone tree. At some point, the proposal explains, a tenant would reach a real person, who would figure out if they needed cash or a lawyer.
A tenant in need of legal representation would be directed to a pro bono law firm. Those in need of a few extra dollars might get a handout.
Funding for the project will come from the state’s housing trust fund. "We have about $2 million," Basta said.
Further details — such as how often a person could access the program, how much missed rent they could receive and how to fund a full-fledged version of the program — have yet to be worked out.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can't afford the rent, can't afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: 'Here for the eviction' | PART 4: $200 from home | PART 5: 'It just has to go' | PART 6: Into the trees | PART 7: Rapid evictions, few options
Local housing advocates said they appreciate the state’s efforts, but have concerns that the program might not go far enough in a state that continues to slide into an affordable-housing crisis.
“Anything is better than nothing at this point,” said Pamela Bridge, an attorney with Community Legal Services, which provides legal advice to poor Arizonans. “Just giving them some help to get through that one time.”
Housing leaders and advocates have long insisted that fewer evictions would help landlords, too, by keeping units occupied and rent checks flowing. The Arizona Multihousing Association, a trade group representing the state’s large-complex landlords, expressed hesitant support for the state’s proposal.
At a public hearing in Phoenix, AMA President Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus said she supported the program, but worried the state was moving too quickly with its proposal.
“I thought we were at the very beginning of this process,” she said. “There’s been no outreach to the landlords that are out there.”
In response, Basta said she wanted to implement something right away, instead of spending eight months meeting and negotiating.
A pilot program was supposed to launch in September. It has since been pushed back to early November. The experiment will be limited to Maricopa County’s two most eviction-heavy Justice Courts — Manistee, in Surprise, and Country Meadows, which covers northwest Phoenix — and focus on collecting and analyzing data.
Those early results will help determine whether the program expands across the state.
"While legislators will need to evaluate the ADOH eviction prevention pilot program to determine its level of support moving forward, I’ve been pleased with ADOH’s aggressive response to this crisis," House Majority Leader John Allen said in a statement. "I believe that ADOH will have the appropriate resources for eviction prevention and legal aid until the market can correct by creating more affordable housing options.”
Bridge, who has pushed to expand tenants’ rights in eviction cases, said she hoped to eventually see lawyers stationed in courthouses, ready to represent tenants who showed up on their own.
Right-to-counsel policies have already sprouted in cities across the country: New York City and Denver are phasing in programs to provide lawyers to all low-income tenants in housing court. Similar proposals are being considered in Boston, Newark, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
New York City also offers tenants a “One Shot Deal,” which pays emergency cash grants to people facing eviction. New Yorkers can access the program once a year.
“I think we need what other programs have,” Bridge said. “There’s so many places in the country that are going in that direction, and I think Phoenix needs that.”
Arizona has launched programs targeted at evictions in the past. All of them are gone now, and the state has done little in response to the rise in evictions sparked by the Great Recession and the ensuing shortage of cheap rental housing.
That inaction has left the response to charities, churches and community centers, which hand out what they can but have been unable to keep up with the now-frantic demand.
Community Legal Services once ran an emergency hotline in Mesa, where tenants could call and get quick legal advice from a paralegal. Few calls actually led CLS to appear in court, Bridge recalled. But when a CLS lawyer took a case, they almost always won.
Then the program ran out of money. CLS closed the hotline last year.