Given the Boot

People such as Emilio Bustamonte are falling through the cracks of the eviction moratorium

The Bustamontes went from comfortably living to homeless in only a few months during COVID.

At a picnic table outside his cheap hotel room, Emilio Bustamonte reflects on how his life has changed over the last month.

"I've been a teacher for 23 years and now I'm homeless," he said.

Before Emilio and his family were evicted in August, they lived comfortably. They ate at restaurants whenever they wanted, visited the swap meet every weekend, and took vacations to San Diego twice a year. He and his wife, Carolina, earned nearly $7,000 a month.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the state government's inaction, took all of that away.

Before the first case of novel coronavirus infection was reported in Southern Arizona, Emilio was working at Gallego Intermediate Fine Arts Magnet School in the Sunnyside Unified School District. In late February, the entire front office staff became sick.

Eventually, the sickness spread to Emilio's entire family. No one thought about coronavirus at the time since cases didn't officially start popping up in Arizona until March. They all assumed it was a bad case of the flu.

Emilio, who is 47, worked as a respiratory therapist before he became a teacher. He said that training is probably what saved everyone's lives.

"I was able to use that experience to treat us," Emilio said. "I bought an oxygen concentrator, the doctor prescribed a nebulizer, Albuterol, I bought high-rate massagers, pulse oximeters."

He used these tools to treat his family members and coworkers, including his 72-year-old mother who has diabetes and other health complications. It wasn't until June when Emilio was tested and found out he had COVID-19 antibodies in his system. The family then realized they had all contracted the virus, and survived.

They dealt with sickness for four months. Carolina lost her job as a caretaker for an elderly woman which she had done for 10 years. Emilio wasn't able to teach summer school, which he had done for eight or nine years. That job provided him with significant income during the summer months. He lost $11,000 in wages from that. Carolina has lost $21,000 in wages so far.

Their 25-year-old daughter lost her job at a call center near the airport. Her two daughters—who Emilio and Carolina cared for five to six days a week before COVID-19 hit—are now in the care of their paternal grandparents.

By the first week in July, when the family was finally regaining their health, they were several months behind on rent. Emilio heard of Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order that shielded renters from being evicted if they had a qualifying circumstance related to COVID-19.

He contacted his landlord and began to gather the necessary documentation proving his income and how much was lost due to his sickness and absence from work. He contacted 211 Arizona, submitted paperwork and found out he qualified to be covered under the governor's executive order and to receive rental assistance.

When the landlord gave notice that he wanted to evict them, Carolina and the family were scared they would lose their house. Emilio assured them that they would be protected. He felt confident that everything would be OK.

In court on July 22, Judge Susan Bacal granted the eviction despite Emilio's paperwork proving he had a qualifying circumstance under the executive order and had signed up for rental assistance.

"She took 7.2 seconds to look at 17 pages of information," Emilio said.

The eviction was issued the next day, but Constable Marge Cummings delayed its enforcement and kept the family in their home as long as possible.

At the end of July, Emilio's landlord filed a motion to compel, meaning he wanted the courts to stop the delay and forcibly remove the tenant from his property. At the compel hearing, Emilio brought his paperwork again and asked Bacal to look through it.

By this time, Emilio was back to work at Craycroft Elementary School and expecting a paycheck soon. He just needed more time to get back on his feet.

Bacal still granted the compel order, saying it was "in the interest of justice" that the family be removed from their home. That phrase is verbatim to the executive order's exception, which allows judges to grant evictions even if the tenant has a qualifying circumstance.

Precinct 8 Constable Kristen Randall said she and other constables have seen several motions to compel as they have moved further into the eviction moratorium. Landlords in Arizona have even tried to sue Gov. Ducey for preventing them from evicting tenants.

"That's not the way the court is supposed to run," Randall said. "We're in a global pandemic right now, and this executive order exists for a reason and to just decide willy nilly to compel an eviction, how is that in the interest of justice?"

Judge Bacal declined to comment on Emilio's case specifically, but said she makes it a practice to listen to both parties, weigh the credibility of witnesses and give appropriate weight to all the evidence.

"There are methods to challenge a judge's decision," she said via email. "Additionally, there are two parties to the action; the judge is not a party but a fact-finder and decision maker after careful and impartial consideration of the evidence."

The day after the court hearing, Emilio received a call from the Arizona Lawyers Guild. Their representative told him they have been monitoring eviction proceedings across the state and believe Emilio's case ended in a wrong decision. The guild encouraged him to call the Southern Arizona Legal Aid office, which had agreed to help him fight the compel order.

But free legal services like SALA have been extremely busy during the pandemic when many people are facing evictions, so their help didn't arrive soon enough. Emilio and his family were already evicted by the time they called him back.

Emilio was encouraged to file a judicial complaint and a motion to reconsider, which was denied. He filed another motion because Carolina wasn't on the eviction paperwork.

The second motion had not yet been denied when Constable Cummings showed up to change the locks.

Emilio was in the middle of teaching class virtually and Carolina was taking care of their grandchildren when they had to leave their three-bedroom, two-story house behind. They took their pets and each person packed one bag of personal items. They piled into Emilio's Saturn Ion and headed to his mother's house.

The children and pets stayed in her two-bedroom townhouse while Emilio and Carolina spent the night in their car in a Walmart parking lot, trying to figure out their next move.

The following day, they found shelter at the Gospel Rescue Mission. Emilio was struggling to teach classes virtually while Carolina and their 15-year-old daughter were harassed by other people in the shelter. They left the next day. Then the family received their first stroke of good luck in a long time. Bonnie Bazata, Pima County's "Ending Poverty Now" program manager, contacted Emilio and helped them access a more stable living situation. Bazata told him all the money for rental assistance comes wrapped in red tape, but she used her connections to get the family a $250 check from a local church organization. They went to the Country Inn & Suites, and that money helped them survive until Emilio's first paycheck came in.

"She's just been a real light in the dark, because that first week was rough," Emilio said of Bazata. "It was really rough."

During this time, Bonnie kept in contact with the Bustamontes and provided them with food to eat. The family moved to a different hotel because their first wouldn't take a third-party check. At their new hotel, Bazata was able to get their expenses covered for the next few months. She even paid the extra fee to have pets in the hotel room.

This was crucial because although Emilio is working again, he still has to pay for moving and storage expenses and repair work on two cars. The family was forced to move all of their belongings into storage units in just a couple of days.

When they returned to their house in early September, some of their expensive personal belongings were missing. After spending two full days moving boxes, Emilio suffered from dehydration and ended up in the hospital for a night.

Since his return to teaching in August, Emilio has missed only one day of work. He taught classes on his phone while he packed his belongings into vehicles.

At the hotel picnic table, he said he regrets trusting that the executive order would protect him and his family from losing their home. Now with an eviction on their record, finding a new house will be nearly impossible.

Constable Randall said Emilio "is the picture of who should be covered by this executive order: somebody that absolutely, demonstrably was affected by Coronavirus, someone who is seeking help and he is back to teaching classes. He will be able to get caught up, everything will be fine, but he needed this delay to get back on his feet."

Rental rates continue to rise in Pima County and hardly any properties offer eviction forgiveness. Carolina said just the application fees for rental housing are financially devastating. The first place they wanted to apply for required $250 that they would never get back.

"You're trying to hold onto your money, you're trying to take care of it, and trying to find a place, but at the same time no one wants to take you because you have an eviction, and they keep the money if you don't get accepted," Carolina said. "It's just like you're stuck here, you're stuck there, and it's difficult. We've already applied to three places. There were two other places I wanted to apply to but the fee was too much."

Emilio and Carolina have been denied at every place they applied because of their eviction. For years, Emilio has paid the maximum 11 percent into the state's retirement system, and he is now considering withdrawing his savings early in order to buy property for his family.

"I'm really thinking about it, because then I could end this," Emilio said. "I'd have over $200,000. I have almost a half a million, but I would lose about $180,000 in penalties."

He would have to leave his teaching job to get the money. Emilio envisions having two acres of land and setting up a couple of manufactured homes for his immediate and extended families. The land would belong to his children and grandchildren in the future.

"If we can't find a rental, and doors keep closing on us when it comes to housing, then I think that's when he's going to have to do it," Carolina said. "I've always told him 'Just wait, just wait' because you never know, but that is the last option. We cannot keep asking for donations to pay for this hotel because we're not the only people who need help."

Across Pima County, it is estimated that 74,000 renters may face eviction by October 2020. The Bustamontes said their hotel is typically used for sex work or selling drugs, but lately they have started to see other families move into the rooms. Emilio said he will be giving one of these families some of his own money to help them get by.

"I'm lucky I have a job, there's people that don't," he said.

Emilio wants other renters to know that even though there's an executive order in effect, it's not being followed. He and many others were still evicted from their homes despite having a Coronavirus-related circumstance and documents to prove it.

He was denied assistance funds several times. Sometimes the help came too late, and agencies offered to pay his rent after he was already evicted. The red tape and the slow process preventing financial assistance from being disbursed has left many renters falling through the cracks.

"You might have mandates out there for protection during this crazy time that we're in, but you're really not protected," Emilio said. "So prepare, don't think you're going to be protected, don't be like me."

Please consider donating any amount to help the Bustamonte family access a stable living situation:

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