Landlords, tenants and courts learning to adapt amid COVID-19

It's been more than six months since Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issued an order to delay evictions for renters affected by COVID-19, and a month ago, the Trump Administration also took action, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a nationwide order to temporarily stop evictions.

However, despite a Federal ban, some landlords, including some in Maricopa County, are still evicting people, as property owners, tenants and the court system all learn to adapt.

A look at Arizona's eviction process

In Arizona, the eviction process begins with the landlord, or plaintiff, taking a tenant, or the defendant, to court. The tenant is sued for eviction, and may be found guilty for non-payment of rent or for other reasons, or maybe the landlord and tenant work out a deal to bring the rent current.

If the judge rules in favor of the landlord, the tenant must move out usually within five days of the judgment. However, if the tenant chooses not to leave, then comes a writ of restitution, which is an order directing the constable to remove the tenant from the property.

FOX 10 cameras followed a Maricopa County constable, as the constable carried out an eviction process.

"I have a court order. You're being evicted out of here, so we're here to change the locks and ask you to leave," the constable said.

The tenant, Marvin Atkins, says he can't afford to live at the place anymore. He decided not to renew his lease in July, but never left.

"What are you gonna do now?" Atkins was asked.

"I'm gonna sleep in my car because I don't have no choice. I can't afford rent," said Atkins.

Constables speak out

Since 2005, Constable Lennie McCloskey has been knocking on doors, executing eviction orders. It may be stating the obvious, but 2020 is like no other due to coronavirus.

One day, McCloskey was at a home where the tenants have moved out after he served them with a writ of restitution in the days prior. Inside, toys, clothes and several other belongings were seen left behind in a hurry.

"They were packing when I was here," said McCloskey. "They had boxes. I told them make sure they grab what's theirs, because there's a short time frame." 

For constables, it's not only an eviction, but an opportunity to educate by providing information on resources for those who are now on the street.

"It's frustrating, it's emotional, but most of the time, they're cooperative with us," said McCloskey.

Presiding Constable Michael Branham says some renters are simply getting misinformation during the pandemic.

"Either people think that the president or the governor stopped evictions entirely - neither one of those things happened here in Arizona," said Branham. "Eviction law, until the CDC order came out, really hadn't changed all that much."

Under CDC's nationwide order, tenants who make less than $99,000 a year, or can't pay rent due to income loss and would become homeless or have to move in with others if evicted, qualify under this criteria. The tenant would give a signed declaration form to the landlord, a form the judge will look for if eviction is filed.

"I do let them know that if you work it out, I won't be back. If you don't work it out, it goes to court. Whatever the judge says, it will happen, whether they enforce it or not," said Constable Darlene Martinez.

The CDC order goes through Dec. 31, 2020. Meanwhile, under Gov. Ducey's executive order, protection from eviction requires proof that the tenant applied for rental assistance. That order expires Oct. 31.

Evictions are down, according to figures

A little more than 27,000 evictions have been filed in 2020, representing a 46% drop compared to the same time period one year prior.

Since Gov. Ducey's executive order in March, eviction filings continued to fall until a climb at the end of summer. In addition, there are nearly 6,000 actual writs of restitution issued in Maricopa County so far in 2020, a 57% decrease from this time in 2019.

Branham says communication is key.

"More and more landlords and tenants are working together to try to find some solution to this," said Branham.

Nonprofits helping renters

Eviction bans, however, don't mean tenants are exempt from having to pay up what they owe, at some point in the future.

"What we’re seeing is people are doing the best they can, but many of them have missed multiple months of rent payments or mortgage payments," said Cynthia Zwick, the Executive Director of Wildfire, a nonprofit organization helping renters get financial help. “Our agencies that we’re partnering with to distribute those funds are seeing 300 calls a day."

Wildfire is using the Phoenix CARES Act money to serve renters in the red. There is $24 million allocated for rent, mortgage, and utility assistance for families affected by COVID-19.

Zwick says the funds have to be spent by the end of the year.

“Unless there’s an extension to the timeframe in which those funds can be spent, or unless there’s additional money that comes out to support both the families, the tenants and the landlords we’re gonna see a shortfall probably before the end of the year," said Zwick.

Landlord activists say they need help

Courtney Gisltrap Levinus, President and CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association, says the can is being kicked down the road.

"More resources are needed, and they’re needed immediately, said Gilstrap Levinus. "We cannot place this burden exclusively on the backs of rental property owners."

In early September, Arizona's Rental Property Owner Preservation Fund ran out of $5 million in just over 30 days, and the Department of Housing approved 458 applicants. Gilstrap Levinus says there are 2,300 members in her association statewide.

So what's next in 2021, when the moratorium ends as rent and mortgage bills stack up?

"We’re not actually anticipating an eviction tsunami," said Levinus. "We’re actually anticipating a rental property foreclosure tsunami coming because we’re now in a position where rental property owners cannot pay their mortgage, so the rental property owner is going to default on their property, and subsequently, the renter then is no longer going to have a place to live once the bank owns that property."

In Washington, D.C., negotiations on a multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 relief package remain at a standstill. Meanwhile, Arizonans like Atkins are feeling the trickle-down effect in a pandemic that is descending into an economic crisis.

"I'm baffled and overwhelmed," said Atkins.

In the past few weeks, the Arizona Supreme Court has issued three new administrative orders on evictions, some of which, most notably, involves landlords, who can now dispute a tenant's CDC declaration. That was not the case before.

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