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While foreclosures are skyrocketing, eviction rates remain steady--but renters are finding help is hard to find

Even as the number of foreclosures in Pima County continues to smash records, the number of renter evictions has remained fairly constant. But that is of little consolation to the multitude of people who are being kicked out of their homes because they've failed to pay their rent.

On a recent furnace-like summer morning, Judge Walter Weber presided over a small downtown courtroom of the Pima County Consolidated Justice Court. In one hour, the white-haired judge heard 14 eviction cases.

A mother cradling her 2-year old daughter was one of the first defendants. She admitted owing the $1,000 monthly rent, but explained that she simply didn't have the money to pay it.

This woman's landlord generously offered to try to work something out with her. But as in every case, Judge Weber told the defendant that if she didn't come to an agreement with her landlord within one week, a constable would lock her out of her home.

The judge also suggested the defendant take a list of local resources she could contact to try to obtain some help. "If you say, 'I'm on the street in a few days,'" he remarked earnestly, "they may help you."

In addition to information and legal-service agencies, that list offers three contacts for "emergency and financial assistance."

One of the agencies included is the Tucson Urban League. A phone call to them, however, gets a tape-recorded message which declares: "Rental and mortgage assistance is no longer available. The funding received by the Tucson Urban League has been expended."

Another agency on the court's list is the Arizona Department of Economic Security. But according to an e-mail from spokeswoman Vicki Gaubeca, the DES "does not offer a service that addresses eviction prevention directly.

"We offer several services that may assist a family in meeting their basic needs and (avoiding) being evicted," Gaubeca continues. These include cash assistance, food stamps and employment listings.

The final contact contained on the court-provided list for possible financial help to avoid eviction is Chicanos por la Causa. But phone calls and e-mails to the agency went unreturned.

Based on these results, the next set of contacts on the court list is probably more useful: It shows the locations and phone numbers of four emergency shelters in town.

Back in the courtroom, a single woman being evicted complimented the plaintiff on having been a good landlord. She admitted she hadn't paid her $400 rent for June, but said she was moving anyway.

Following this case, a middle-age man who didn't speak English was being evicted from his $275-a-month rental. Late fees and court costs brought the total owed to more than $400.

After an interpreter via speakerphone was quickly located, the defendant said he'd been out of work as a painter. Once again, Judge Weber informed the man that he had one week to make arrangements with his landlord, or a constable would lock him out.

While the relationship between landlords and tenants was generally cordial and gave the hopeful appearance that something could be arranged in most of the cases, one dispute near the end of the hour was anything but friendly.

"He's a meth dealer," the landlord declared of her tenant, a man who appeared to be about 40 and who showed up late. "I don't care about the rent; I just want him out!"

In his defense, the tenant claimed he did work for the landlord in exchange for the rent. Despite that, he eventually agreed to vacate the premises within one week.

These cases are just a few of the approximately 1,400 evictions in Pima County, or "forcible detainers," which will be filed this month.

According to records supplied by the Pima County Justice Court system, the number of these filings has increased only by a miniscule amount during the last three years. For the first five months of 2006, there were 6,687; in 2007, it was 6,657; and this year, the number is 6,748.

The same can't be said of foreclosures. The numbers for the past two years may have been higher, but in 2008, they have risen to astronomical levels.

In the first five months of 2006, just more than 1,000 "notice of trustee's sale" filings were recorded with Pima County. For the same period last year, the figure had exceeded 1,600--a 60 percent increase.

The largest monthly total during that five-month span of 2007 was 398 for May. That number, which was then considered quite high, now looks unimaginably low.

February of this year had the smallest number of foreclosure filings for 2008--598. The total for the first five months of the year so far is 3,377, with a possible record of 720 being set in May.

Based on these figures, it appears likely that foreclosures in Pima County will more than double this year compared to last year, and may triple the 2006 number. That, obviously, isn't good news.

Thus, the national real estate boom that went bust continues to reverberate in Tucson.

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