This spring, the city of Phoenix received a $51 million slice of the billions in rental assistance funds that Congress has sent to states and municipalities nationwide, in an effort to alleviate economic hardship brought on by the pandemic. Thousands of low-income renters in Phoenix have inundated the city with applications for the payments, which could cover months of overdue rent. Phoenix closed one of its two application portals because of the high demand.
But many of those applications remain trapped in a sluggish bureaucracy, facing months-long wait times for approval. With only two weeks remaining before evictions can resume as normal, Phoenix still has around $32 million in relief funds left to distribute. It’s racing to get the money out before tenants begin to lose their homes.
For Kelly McGowan, deputy director of the advocacy group Wildfire AZ, the situation is urgent. "It’s ramped up the need to get as much money out as fast as possible,” she said. The nonprofit is responsible for distributing half of Phoenix’s relief funds (the other half is being distributed by the city’s human services department). But the approval process takes time: Tenants must prove their eligibility and meet with city case managers; landlords have to cooperate. The city is working with a dozen social services agencies to connect with renters but, ultimately, resources are limited.
Phoenix is outpacing the state of Arizona — which had distributed only 15% of its available rent relief funds at the beginning of this month — but McGowan expects that at least half of the available funds will remain unused when the moratorium expires, with thousands of applications waiting in line for processing.
Rent relief distribution has been slow around the country, as states and municipalities face bureaucratic hurdles, and renters struggle with a complicated application process. Last month, an Urban Institute survey found that most renters weren’t aware that federal assistance existed. The slow pace has prompted some states and cities — like California — to locally extend their moratoriums. Arizona has taken no such action.
In Phoenix, a city that has regularly topped lists for the highest number of eviction filings nationwide, tenant advocates fear that August 1 will usher in a flood of eviction filings. “The courts are going to be busy as hell,” said Ken Volk, founder of Arizona Tenants Advocates, whose organization often receives over a hundred calls a day from renters in need of assistance
Still, the eviction process takes time. “If there's a tsunami of evictions, the court system is not going to be able to handle that in two days,” said McGowan. She hopes that the city can get relief to many more renters by the time court dates are set in late August and September.
But many landlords have already filed for evictions and, in many cases, have had judgments issued in their favor. So far in 2021, Maricopa County courts have reported about 3,000 eviction filings per month. And preliminary figures show that county judges have issued nearly 10,000 “writs of restitution” — court orders that authorize evictions — since the beginning of the pandemic, a figure that is expected to rise when final numbers are tallied. Many of these writs have not been enforced due to the moratorium — but once it expires, that protection will disappear.
“We are about to see a lot of people evicted in August,” said Pam Bridge, an attorney with Community Legal Services, which provides legal aid to low-income tenants in Arizona. She noted that the summer heat could compound the crisis: “It’s one of the worst times of the year,” she said. “It’s 110 outside, and we have families being evicted.”
The federal rent relief can still be used to pay back rent after an eviction — and to fund deposits for new housing. But once a tenant is evicted, McGowan explains, the judgment remains on tenants’ permanent records, and can make it “very difficult to find housing.” Even an eviction filing itself — regardless of the outcome of the case — can haunt renters for years to come.
Even now, tenants who received eviction judgments during the pandemic, Bridge said, are struggling to find new housing. “They have been trying to move, because we’ve been telling them for months that the CDC order was going to end,” she said. “And no one is taking them because they have a judgment.”
For Bridge, the looming end to the moratorium, and the race to distribute rent relief, are part of a crisis in Maricopa County that dates back years. “We need to be thinking long-term,” she said. “Because our normal before the pandemic was an eviction crisis.”