A Wave Of Evictions Is Beginning In Maricopa County

Ken Volk’s office has been flooded with calls over the past week from renters seeking legal help.

“It’s been nonstop,” says the president of the Phoenix-based group Arizona Tenants Advocates. “Landlords are just left and right giving thirty-day notices. They want them out.”

The federal eviction moratorium implemented during the pandemic slowed the longstanding eviction crisis in metro Phoenix, which for years has regularly reported more evictions than almost anywhere else in the country. But, now, in the week since Supreme Court struck down the moratorium, tenants and housing advocates are reporting a large spike in evictions.

“Tenants are scrambling,” said Pamela Bridge, director of litigation and advocacy at Community Legal Services, which provides legal aid for renters in the county. “It’s a really devastating time for families.”

Bridge said that over the past week, she has seen local landlords eager to sell or renovate their properties give out eviction notices to every tenant. Others have hiked up rents beyond what most of their tenants can pay.

What Volk and Bridge are seeing isn't yet reflected in the eviction courts: In August, according to preliminary data from Maricopa County Justice Courts, landlords filed just under 3,000 evictions, slightly down from July, although up 38 percent from last summer. “The delays built into the [eviction] process prevent any significant differences from being seen at this time,” Scott Davis, public information officer with the justice courts, told Phoenix New Times.

Some unfortunate renters have been struggling for a month already, having been kicked out of their homes on the first few days in August before the Biden administration extended the moratorium that was lifted at the end of July. John Idalis, a recent ASU graduate, and their mother, Dianne Harris, were forced to vacate their Tempe apartment on July 31. Harris explained that property management began insisting that they leave, citing that they owed back rent.

“They were calling and saying I need to turn the keys in, I need to turn the keys in,” she explained. “What do we do?”

They left their home with an eviction judgment against them, which a judge had passed down despite the moratorium. It has haunted them as they search for new housing; although Idalis is working overtime, and can cover housing costs, landlords won’t approve them, given the eviction record.

“We have nowhere to go,” Harris said. “We just take it one day at a time, one moment at a time.” In August, they were staying in a Motel 6, paying over $2,000 a month for a room.

Thousands more renters will soon find themselves in a similar situation — their records stained by eviction judgments issued despite the moratorium.

“Especially in the very beginning, under the CDC order, some judges would go ahead and give a judgment against the tenant,” Bridge said, even though the judges could instead have delayed and waited for tenants to receive rental assistance. It’s left many renters with what Volk calls a “permanent blacklisting.”

There’s no guarantee, Bridge explained, that an eviction judgment will be cleared after it’s issued, even if renters pay their debts. Harris and Idalis, for instance, were able to get rental assistance from the city of Tempe. They immediately used it to pay back their overdue rent. But when they last spoke with New Times, they were still waiting to see if their landlord would clear their record with the court.

The distribution of rent relief has gone slowly in Arizona as well, despite overwhelming demand, leaving tenants to face eviction even if they qualify for relief. The city of Phoenix has nearly $20 million in rent relief funds that it has yet to give out, and it is expecting another $55 million to be approved for the program next week.

“The need is so significant,” says Marchelle Franklin, the director of Phoenix’s human services department. The end of the moratorium, she said, is “something we're all concerned about. We keep saying, okay, how do we create efficiencies to get money out the door?” But, despite the city’s efforts, processing applications for the money remains slow.

But even if Phoenix — and the county — distribute all their money, it’s not clear if the millions will pay off renters’ debt.

In August, ASU researchers released a model of the impacts of the end of the moratorium on evictions in Maricopa County. It found, said Joffa Applegate, an assistant research professor at ASU’s School of Complex Adaptive Systems and co-author of the paper, that nearly 20 percent of renters “are behind on their rent and don't have the funds to pay.” Assuming about 400,000 renting households in the county, that number could be as high as 80,000.

“Now, whether that results in eviction depends on a whole bunch of other stuff,” Applegate said. Fundamentally, she explained, the model was projecting debt, not actual evictions.

But the debt is astronomical: Applegate’s model estimates renters’ total debt in Maricopa County to be $926 million, including both unpaid rent and utilities. That figure surpasses the amount of rental relief allocated to the entire state of Arizona. (Another national model on debt and eviction risk by the New York Times found a smaller percentage of renters to be at risk in Maricopa County than the ASU model, but calculated a similar figure of back rent owed.)

“What’s really happening is you have households who are accruing massive amounts of debt, month to month to month,” Applegate said. “These people have been housed. But at the same time, they’re accruing the debt. And there are not enough public funds to deal with all of it.”

The true scale of the coming wave of evictions, though, still remains to be seen, as the courts slowly return to stayed eviction cases, and constables head out to enforce old actions. Advocates say they expect the real spike of eviction filings to begin in September. "But we're looking forward," said Bridge, adding that her focus now was "dealing with the underlying eviction crisis that we have in Arizona."

After all, she said, "We don't want the end of this to be back where we were before the pandemic."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk