Checks and Balances: Eviction moratorium extended but aid dollars still tied up with county, state and agencies

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva demanded the State of Arizona release emergency rental assistance funds to Arizona renters in a press briefing Friday morning.

This comes as the federal government released the second round of emergency rental assistance from the American Rescue Plan. Pima County and the City of Tucson received a little over $15 million for the second round. The city and county had allocated the first round of funding to their collaboration with Community Investment Corporation and local nonprofits, Tucson Pima Eviction Prevention Program, which provides rental and utility assistance for tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19-related reasons.

Grijalva argued that the county has established a more efficient program than the state to allocate the funds needed to those facing eviction.

"The direct allocation to the city, to the county as part of legislation as part of the package was important to make sure that we got an immediate intervention. The long term went to the states," said Grijalva. "But what concerns me is if we have this model and we use it well and that initial intervention has proven productive and good, then the governor or the state administration that is not utilizing the money, should do the same thing as the federal government: make a direct allocation and let that work continue."

Since March, the City of Tucson and Pima County's Eviction Prevention Program has paid close to 70% of the first round of emergency rental assistance funds, while the Arizona Department of Economic Security has paid little over $12 million of the over $289 million allocated to the state in the first round.

Before the program began processing cases, they had around 4,000 cases in the waitlist. While the cases continue to grow, Director of Community Investment Corporation Danny Knee said they have been able to keep the number of cases in the waitlist to about 2,700 cases for the last six weeks. He said they continue to receive around 100 inquiries a day–not all inquiries will turn into applications—and case managers will work on roughly 1,000 cases on any given day.

"We're extremely proud of the fact that we were one of the highest performing programs in the country and at the same time, the need is still extreme," said Knee. "Again, understanding that this is more than just transactional for people. This is people's lives. People are stressed. In many cases 15% of our cases are landlords who have not been paid in 10 months or more. That means those are also the tenants who have had that stress of not paying the rent for 10 months or more. So this is a two-sided problem."

The program had implemented new measures in order to expedite the process and allocate funds, with the looming deadline for the eviction moratorium, set to end on July 31.

According to Knee, they have begun to work more closely with the courts to flag urgent cases with people facing imminent eviction. He said they have some designated people working on cases where someone faces eviction the same day or within the next few days.

On Aug. 3, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a targeted extension of the federal eviction moratorium through Oct. 3. The new moratorium applies to areas of the country experiencing high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, which includes Pima County.

Under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, the county and city have until Sept. 30, 2022, to expend the first round of funds and until Sept. 30, 2025 to expend the second round of funds. However, officials felt the pressure to expend funds before an expected wave of evictions following the end of the eviction moratorium on July 31.

Before the expected end of the moratorium, Knee said they saw an uptick in inquiries, receiving about 900 inquiries in a week.

Knee said he is thankful for the extension, but is aware of the burden on landlords. As of Friday, Knee said on average applicants would wait about 60 days to get through the entire process and receive the payment.

"I know some landlords may not feel that way. We know that, again, they're having to carry more of a financial burden, of those who are continuing to wait during this period, but we do have the money to get to them," said Knee. "In some ways it may be forced patience, but we do deeply appreciate their patience, and hopefully we can help more people."

However, the extension faces legal challenges from a group of property owners, which may cut it short.

Despite the challenges, Grijalva believes there is good reason to extend the moratorium as the country grapples with an ongoing pandemic and a wave of cases brought on by the Delta variant. He said if COVID is still spreading "and we hit the housing cliff and people are evicted, then I think the crisis is gonna multiply. There is a correlation between the pandemic and housing. There is a correlation between the pandemic and food insecurity."

Grijalva also notes that children currently registering for schools require an address, but some of those addresses are on the waiting list.

"If nothing is done, then that's lost, then you've lost all that," said Grijalva. "Then you're dealing with a real loss."

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