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New federal order could protect Arizona renters from evictions through 2020

New federal order could protect Arizona renters from evictions through 2020

  • Updated

A new federal directive could provide Arizona renters with new protections, even if the state high court eventually decides to rule against an anti-eviction order by Gov. Doug Ducey.

The order issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prohibits millions of renters nationally from being ousted from homes or apartments due to nonpayment of rent.

It is far more expansive than earlier federal directives that had covered only federally financed rental units. This new order goes through the end of the year; Ducey’s executive order expires at the end of October.

The action comes just weeks after President Trump directed the CDC to study the issue.

It also comes as the Arizona Multihousing Association is trying to convince the Arizona Supreme Court that it should override the governor’s own similar directive.

The landlords’ group contends the emergency powers Arizona lawmakers gave to governors do not permit what it says amounts to seizure of property.

Assuming the CDC order is valid — and there have been no challenges filed — it could mean the Arizona landlords could win their lawsuit and still not be able to evict tenants.

There was no immediate response from the landlords’ group or its legal team.

The new federal directive has a multi-part test to qualify.

First is a requirement that the tenant has “used best efforts” to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing. The order does not define what that involves, however.

Similarly, tenants must make “best efforts” — again, undefined — to make timely partial payments “that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit.”

There is an income cap of $99,000 for this year for individuals and $198,000 for couples filing joint tax returns.

Also required is a reason for the inability to pay rent, which can be “substantial” loss of household income, loss of work hours or wages, a layoff, or “extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.” That last category includes unreimbursed medical expenses likely to exceed 7.5% of an individual’s gross income for the year.

Finally, there is a requirement for an applicant to say that eviction likely would leave the person or family homeless or, at the least, force them to live “in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting.”

“Housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19,” the directive states. It says that the ability of these facilities to do infection-control measures such as social distancing decreases as crowding increases.

“Unsheltered homelessness also increases the risk that individuals will experience severe illness from COVID-19,” the CDC states.

As with Ducey’s order, the CDC says none of this removes the legal obligation of anyone to pay rent or other financial obligations under lease agreements. Landlords are allowed to collect late fees, penalties and interest.

The income figure for eligibility is not arbitrary, the CDC says.

The agency cites a national study showing that someone would need to be earning about $49,837 a year to afford a two-bedroom unit without spending more than 30% of income on rent.

Under the CDC order, violators can be fined $100,000 and jailed for up to a year; for business enterprises the fine is $200,000 per violation or $500,000 if it results in death.

Ducey’s executive order has a separate list of what can exempt a tenant from being evicted.

Factors include the need of someone diagnosed with COVID-19 to be quarantined; renters having health conditions that put them at higher-than-average risk for contracting the virus; or substantial loss of income.

But there is a workaround for landlords to the Arizona order. It allows a judge to order an eviction when it is “necessary in the interest of justice” or for other violations of the lease, like lying about the number of occupants, pets, income, employment or a criminal record.

The CDC action drew a mixed reaction from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The move is “long overdue and badly needed,” said Diane Yentel, the coalition’s president and CEO.

But in a prepared statement she also called it a “half-measure” because it simply delays the problem of evictions and provides no financial relief. She urged Congress and the White House to try to iron out differences in a COVID-19 relief bill, which she said would provide at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.

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