Arizona governor orders halt on evictions for renters affected by coronavirus

Arizona governor orders halt on evictions for renters affected by coronavirus

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series
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In this photo from 2019, a Pima County constable left documents on a door warning a resident of an apartment that an eviction process had begun.  

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Arizona renters affected by COVID-19 will not be in danger of losing their homes, at least through July 23.

Gov. Doug Ducey, in an executive order Tuesday, barred police officers and constables from carrying out eviction orders under certain circumstances.

Not all renters will be eligible for the reprieve.

Under Ducey's order, relief will be available to anyone who is required to be quarantined based on a diagnosis of COVID-19 or has been ordered to self-quarantine by a licensed medical professional based on symptoms.

Evictions also can be avoided if someone else living in the home is diagnosed with the virus or if they have some condition "that makes them more at risk for COVID-19 than the average person.''

There also are financial triggers, with evictions precluded for anyone who suffers a "substantial loss of income'' linked to the virus, ranging from job loss, a cutback in wages, closure of their place of employment, or an obligation to be absent from work to care for a home-bound school-age child.

The relief is not automatic.

Tenants and residents must notify the property owner or landlord in writing and provide supporting documentation. They also must acknowledge that they remain bound by the terms of the lease.

There are exceptions. The order allows evictions if a judge determines they are necessary "in the interest of justice'' or if a tenant is being evicted for lying on a lease agreement about such things as employment, a criminal conviction, or having pets.

Ducey's order is effective for 120 days, meaning tenants who are still in arrears on July 23 — the 121st day — would be subject to eviction. There will be time for Ducey to "reevaluate" before that date, said his press aide, Patrick Ptak.

The order came just hours after mayors of five Arizona cities wrote to the governor urging such action.

"Arizona is already experiencing a high rate of evictions due to a high cost of living and COVID-19 is only going to exacerbate the issue,'' wrote the mayors of Tucson, Winslow, Flagstaff, Somerton and Tolleson. "While we appreciate the additional funding for housing assistance (included in the relief package approved Monday by the Legislature), we seek assurance that no Arizonans lose their home due to the economic hardship imposed by COVID-19.''

But the order got a skeptical response from the Arizona Multihousing Association, made up of landlords of multi-family units.

"Obviously we want help for residents,'' said Courtney LeVinus, the organization's president. "We recognize that our residents are struggling right now.

"We expect 20 to 30% unemployment here relatively soon,'' she said.

But LeVinus said it's not as simple as telling landlords they can't collect rents. "This needs to be a comprehensive solution.''

That means recognizing that it's not just tenants who are affected by the pandemic, she said.

"We also need support for residential building owners or we're simply shifting the burden from one group to another,'' LeVinus said.

In a prepared statement, Ducey explained his decision.

"Nobody should be forced out of their home because of COVID-19,'' he said.

"This order is about protecting public health and providing relief to families impacted by this virus, whether through sickness or economic hardship. This is the right thing to do to support Arizona families during their time of need and prevent the spread of COVID-19.''

Aides to the governor said there is national precedent. They cited the decision of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to suspend evictions for HUD-financed properties. And they said the Federal Housing Finance Agency directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which purchase mortgages from lenders, to suspend foreclosure and evictions for at least 60 days due to the coronavirus national emergency.

Ptak provided no answer to questions of how landlords, deprived of rental income, will pay their day-to-day expenses.

But he said landlords may be able to get some financial help, at least from what they owe on the properties.

"Our office is working with banks on options to provide mortgage relief,'' he said in a written statement.

"Many banks have taken action to do this already, such as Bank of America,'' Ptak continued. "They are letting customers request to defer payments on mortgages and issuing a forbearance on foreclosures.''

LeVinus said there already were moves to protect tenants before Ducey's order.

She said the Multihousing Association board put out an email last week "encouraging'' landlords to work with residents case-by-case to deal with financial problems. That includes accepting partial payments, waiving late fees and setting up payment plans, LeVinus said.

She also pointed out that, before Ducey's order, others already took action designed to prevent tenants from being tossed out.

She noted that all Pima County constables said they will not do further evictions "until we have received adequate guidance from the Pima County Health Department and the Arizona Supreme Court."

"We feel the gravity of this epidemic calls for immediate action to minimize infections in our state,'' the constables wrote. And, on a more practical level, they said they lack both the training and the ability to obtain necessary protective equipment to reduce transmission of the virus.

Justice courts in Maricopa County have delayed eviction hearings until at least early April.

LeVinus said the Multihousing Association has not studied whether the governor has the legal power to do what he did.

Arizona Supreme Court spokesman Aaron Nash said that Ducey, as the state's chief executive, has authority over executive branch employees. Nash said that includes constables.

Actual eviction orders have to come from justices of the peace. And Nash said it is up to each of them to decide which eviction complaints to handle and how quickly.

Renters aside, the Governor's Office said the Arizona Department of Housing offers assistance to people struggling to make mortgage payments.

They said the agency's Save Our Home AZ program allows mortgage payers to seek a reduction in the amount owed, mortgage subsidy assistance for those who are unemployed or underemployed, and assistance in eliminating second liens on homes.

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