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Thousands Have Applied, Few Have Been Helped By Arizona COVID-19 Eviction Prevention Program

Ronnie Wollenzier had been renting a house near downtown Phoenix with her sister when the pandemic began.

“I love my home. I’ve made my home here, you know? I love the neighborhood,” Wollenzier said.

Wollenzier, 25, stopped working as a nanny in mid-March. She applied for unemployment but wasn’t paid right away. Her sister was also out of work and decided to move out of state to stay with their parents. So by May 1, Wollenzier owed twice as much in rent but had zero income. Ultimately, she couldn’t come up with the $1,457 she owed the landlord.

A for-rent sign was put up in Wollenzier's yard, and her landlord sued to evict her.

“I just felt completely lost. This has never happened to me before,” Wollenzier said.

In light of the pandemic, Gov. Doug Ducey  put a moratorium on evictions through July. But that only applies to enforcement — rent is still due and eviction courts are still hearing cases.

But the governor also  allocated $5 million to a new  COVID-19 Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance program, which was supposed to provide up to $2,000 to eligible renters impacted by COVID-19.

Nearly 11,000 Arizona renters have applied for relief, but two months after the program was created, just over 600 have been helped, according to the Arizona Department of Housing.

Nearly 11,000 Arizona renters have applied for relief, but two months after the program was created, just over 600 have been helped, according to the Arizona Department of Housing.

Wollenzier is still waiting for a response.

“It’s not an easy process, you need a scanner, you need to be able to fax things, some of these documents I don’t have access to. So that’s been kind of tricky to navigate," Wollenzier said. 

The eviction prevention program is run by the Arizona Department of Housing, but applications are being reviewed by 11 smaller agencies around the state. Maricopa County Human Services is one of those groups. Director Bruce Liggett said public programs like food stamps always weigh complicated factors like who’s head of a household, or what counts as income. But he said the requirements for this program are even more cumbersome.

“Because the state wanted to connect this to the COVID crisis, there’s a comparison of pre-COVID to post-COVID," Liggett said. "The COVID experience could have happened nicely on the end of the month, or it could have happened on the 13th of the month, so then income calculations become a little more challenging for us.”

Arizona’s Department of Housing declined to provide an interview for this story. But in an email, a spokesperson said the department has adjusted some requirements to make the process easier. The application now asks for just one month of bank statements instead of two; applicants now only have to provide documentation for those listed on the lease instead of everyone in the household; and applicants can now include an explanation letter if they can’t provide all of the required documents.

But critics say the Department of Housing has not gone far enough. The landlord trade group, Arizona Multihousing Association, is calling for the state to allow landlords to apply on behalf of renters. Association President Courtney LeVinus said Arizona property owners stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if renters can’t pay.

“We can’t continue to shift the burden from the resident to the rental owner, it doesn’t solve the problem," LeVinus said.

And some housing advocates worry Arizona has now waited too long to act to avoid catastrophe.

“That emergency rental assistance is something that we were hoping for before a pandemic hit like this," said Joan Serviss, executive director of the nonprofit Arizona Housing Coalition.

Serviss said Arizona was already in a housing affordability crisis. Phoenix’s population has grown more than any other U.S. city in the last decade, and rent prices here are rising at  twice the rate of the national average. Amid that tight housing market, the region’s unsheltered homeless population has  nearly tripled in five years.

Serviss fears if people are evicted now, cheaper housing is simply not available.

“They winnow down their savings, they stay at a friend or family’s house, winnow down that relationship, so they exhaust their social supports and that’s when they show up at the homeless shelters," Serviss said. 

Liggett said he knows how critical preventing eviction is, but said his agency hasn’t been provided enough resources to handle the demand.

“The fact that we’ve got almost 4,000 cases assigned to us and we’ve got the ability to pay for 500 — our current estimate — means that most people are not going to be able to receive this benefit," Liggett said. 

In the time since Wollenzier submitted her application, a judge ruled in her landlord’s favor.

“That includes all of the court costs, the filing fee, the process server fee, attorney fees, all of these fees that he is charging to me in a moment when I'm the brokest I’ve ever been," Wollenzier said. 

She can appeal the decision, beyond that, she said she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

For more on obstacles that make housing in Phoenix harder for many residents to afford, listen to Hear Arizona's podcast series (UN)Affordable

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.