Maricopa County is rolling out a $2.6 million program to offer free legal help to renters facing eviction who couldn’t pay their landlords during the pandemic.
The money for renter legal aid comes as many Arizona landlords have received attorney's fees and court costs through rental assistance requests this year from the state’s federal emergency rental aid.
Maricopa County is using money from its fiscal recovery fund to pay nonprofit Community Legal Services to hire 12 attorneys and six paralegals who will work with renters across the Valley.
“We know there is such a need for legal services in the eviction process,” said Jacqueline Edwards, deputy director of Human Services at Maricopa. “With the moratorium ended, we are trying to focus on helping households facing immediate eviction.”
She said the program is to help tenants navigating the eviction process as well as helping landlords receive rental assistance for those renters.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in late August to block a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium allowed landlords to start evicting renters for missed payments again.
Metro Phoenix evictions are expected to start climbing this month.
In Maricopa County, less than 1% of all tenants in eviction court have had legal representation since COVID-19 hit in early 2020. About 90% of landlords have had legal representation in the courts during the same timeframe, according to the Maricopa County Justice Courts
“We are definitely getting more calls for help from tenants,” said Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation at CLS. “The earlier tenants contact us, the more we can help. Landlords are definitely moving to evict for non-payment of rent again.”
Arizona Multihousing Association CEO Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus said cities and counties should focus on getting rental assistance to tenants instead of spending money on legal assistance programs.
“The most effective way to prevent evictions is to deploy rental assistance to eliminate renters’ debt,” LeVinus said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that 20 months into the pandemic, municipalities continue to struggle to deploy eviction relief dollars efficiently."
Most emergency rental assistance programs in Arizona allow landlords to lump in attorney's fees and court costs with their total rental assistance request and do not track how much money is going toward the landlord's legal bills.
Multiple programs contacted by The Arizona Republic said they will only ask for an itemized list of fees if the total amount of assistance requested "appears excessive."
The Tucson/Pima County program and statewide Department of Economic Security program are the only ones that track landlord attorney's fees and court costs.
As of mid-August, the Tucson/Pima County program had doled out about $18 million in rental assistance, $1.6 million in utility assistance and $80,000 for landlord legal costs.
The DES program had allocated $12 million in rental assistance, $5.8 million in utility assistance and $16,000 for landlord legal costs.
Bridge said she is concerned landlords have an incentive to evict because their legal and court fees are covered by the federal rental aid programs.
LeVinus said "eviction is a time-consuming, expensive process," that landlords would rather avoid.
"Having a few hundred dollars in legal fees covered by eviction relief ... funding represents a drop in the bucket, not a financial incentive to evict anyone," she said.
The city of Phoenix used federal rental money issued in 2020 to fund a legal-aid program for its residents facing eviction. That program with CLS, funded with about $1 million, is set up to help struggling tenants who are at 200% of the federal poverty line.
Pima County and Tucson tapped $2 million of their rental aid for legal programs last year.
All tenants in Maricopa County, who couldn’t pay rent during pandemic, are eligible for its new legal program.
Several big U.S. cities, counties and states are also using their federal money to fund legal-aid programs for renters, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Here's a breakdown of what other major U.S. cities are spending to get tenants legal help:
Harris County, Texas, which is home to eviction hotspot Houston and is bigger than Maricopa County, has allocated $1 million to legal aid for tenants. But Texas has allocated more than $24 million.
California has the biggest statewide legal aid program for tenants facing eviction with $120 million in funding.
Arizona hasn't funded a statewide legal program for struggling renters.
Maricopa County said funding for its eviction legal-aid program can be expanded if there’s a need from renters.
“The expansion of legal assistance for all of Maricopa County is critical to promoting access to justice for tenants,” said Chris Groninger, a consumer advocate with the nonprofit Arizona Bar Foundation. The aid “is unlikely to slow evictions since the moratorium is no longer active."
"Legal assistance will, however, provide tenants with information about their rights and the eviction process and representation to protect those rights,” she said.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8040. Follow her on Twitter @Catherinereagor.
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