Demand for rental assistance in Maricopa County is up. Can aid keep pace with pre-pandemic eviction rate?

Landlords are filing evictions in Maricopa County at the rate we saw before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the county is seeing more tenants in need.

But, can the dispersal of relief funds keep up with the pace of evictions happening across the Valley? An Avondale woman says she’s about to be out of her home as she waits for help.

All it took was a missed rent payment and late fees to pile on – a slippery slope to an eviction filing.

For Natalie Baker, months went by before a rental assistance application was submitted without issues. By then, it was already too late.

"I’m 57 years old and this never happened in my life," she said, overwhelmed, as she has boxes already packed.

After living in an Avondale rental home for nearly five years, it’s time to move on.

"I admit that I owe rent," Baker said.

In early July, a judge signed off on an eviction action for nonpayment of rent, but Baker says she knew she needed rental assistance in May when she first called the Maricopa County Human Services Department.

"I’m steady calling Maricopa County as well. No one has ever contacted me from Maricopa County. Each and every contact that took place, I called into them because the process is getting lengthier and lengthier," Baker said.

Her application was incomplete for about eight weeks until county staff helped her finish it. She now owes more than $10,000 which includes multiple months of rent, late fees and legal fees to her landlord, Progress Residential, a company that owns thousands of properties in the county, according to the assessor’s website, and also rents to tenants across the country.

Meanwhile, eviction filings have returned to pre-pandemic levels in Maricopa County.

As of June 2022, landlords filed 5,792 evictions, a 10% increase compared to February 2020, which was at 5,256.

Moratorium expires, rental assistance applications increase

Remember the COVID-19 eviction moratorium?

With multiple extensions, a nationwide ban on evictions during the pandemic lasted until the end of September 2021. Since expiring, evictions in Maricopa County shot back up, averaging about 4,700 a month.

Now the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program is seeing the impact.

Is Maricopa County seeing more applicants this year asking for more rental assistance?

"In the last month, we have seen a slight, steady increase in applications for rental assistance. We know that families are really having considerable challenges with increased rent costs, inflation, rising food costs and gas costs, so it’s to be expected that the number of applications are going to be increasing," explains Jacqueline Edwards, Director of Maricopa County Human Services Department.

The ERA program provides rental assistance to residents who live outside of Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, Gilbert and Chandler as there are already programs in place for those cities.

"We want to work with those who are in need of assistance as quickly as possible because we understand the crisis that they are in is so stressful, and we want to do whatever we can to alleviate that," Edwards says.

According to county data, ERA has committed nearly $80 million in rental and utility assistance from March 19, 2021, through July 8, 2022. The average rental assistance payment is $9,401.

Federal guidelines say households living at or below 80% of the area median income can qualify.

A county spokesperson says it takes about two weeks for landlords to get payments once applications are completed and approved.

In Baker's case, she says the process has not been smooth.

"In this particular case, there was no landlord verification form so as soon as we got the information from the client, we reached out to the landlord to try to get the information necessary to process this client’s application," Edwards said.

FOX10 Investigates reached out to Progress Residential about Baker's pending eviction.

It released a statement saying, "At Progress, we offer a variety of resources to support residents who are experiencing challenging times, with the goal of helping them stay in their homes. Eviction is a last resort outcome, and we are committed to working with residents to avoid that possibility."

Baker says her fate relies on the company.

"My residency remains in the hands of Progress Residential because the county is finally ready to do what they should have been doing months ago," she said.

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‘I’ve never been in this predicament'

"What I've heard lately is that people are having a harder time getting rental assistance," says Judge Anna Huberman, who presides over the Country Meadows precinct, focused on the west Valley.

Her precinct has been hit with the second-highest caseload for eviction filings in Maricopa County, averaging about 356 a month.

She describes this as a losing situation for tenants with financial struggles.

"There's very few legal defenses to the nonpayment of rent and because most cases that we hear are nonpayment of rent. It is very challenging for the tenant. Their hardship is not a legal defense to the nonpayment of rent and unfortunately what we hear is mostly hardship," Huberman explains.

It’s rare to see a tenant with legal defense in the courtroom to fight an eviction.

"More than 90% of tenants and evictions are not represented by attorneys," says Pamela Bridge, Director of Litigation and Advocacy for Community Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm advocating for low-income Arizonans.

She says more landlords are increasing rents or choosing not to renew leases.

In Baker's case, monthly rent went from about $1,400 in 2018 and crept up to $1,900 this year. That's not including utilities.

"What's worse now than it was before, when we were still making national news for being the highest rates of evictions, is now we have thousands of tenants with a judgment on their record because of COVID and currently," Bridge said.

That judgment ultimately affects the housing you can or can’t rent next.

Baker says she’s finally getting some assistance from Progress Residential, and the hope is someone there provides the county with the information needed.

At this point, even with a rental assistance payment, that still does not change the judgment ordering Baker to be evicted.

What will she do if she ultimately does end up being physically evicted?

She says, "I don’t know because I’ve never been in this predicament. I don’t know what to do."