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Tucson considers 3D printed homes, zoning changes, new law in face of housing crisis

Nahrin Jabro, a social worker, makes a call last week trying to help a person facing an eviction find shelter for the night. Jabro works with Pima County's Emergency Eviction Legal Services. 

As Tucson’s affordable housing crisis worsens, the City Council will be asked to promote low-cost development such as modular and 3D-printed homes, to update zoning regulations and to consider a new nondiscrimination law, among other actions.

The city’s housing director will outline these recommendations on Tuesday to Mayor Regina Romero and the council.

It’s a problem that’s been building for years, compounded by the pandemic.

Since 2017, the median rent in Tucson has risen by 40% and now averages more than $1,200 per month, data provided by the city shows. For people wanting to buy a home, the average value has increased from $176,199 in 2017 to more than $287,000 this year.

Between 2019 and September of this year, incomes here increased by about 4%, but the median rent jumped by more than 25% and home values by nearly 42%, city data shows.

This is coupled with more landlords not wanting to accept federal Housing Choice Vouchers, until recently called Section 8.

Federal guidelines require voucher holders not spend more than 30% of their income on housing, a threshold that helps people be able to afford food and other living expenses.

By current estimates — and using that 30% threshold — more than 75,000 Tucsonans pay too much of their income on housing.

Among the policy proposals to be outlined by Liz Morales, director of the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, during Tuesday’s council study session:

Encourage smaller scale housing projects, especially for vulnerable adults and seniors.

Discuss passing an ordinance prohibiting housing discrimination on the basis of a source of income, making it unlawful to refuse to rent an apartment to a tenant because they receive Social Security or other federal benefits such as the Housing Choice Voucher.

Update zoning regulations and development standards, and provide incentives, to encourage construction of affordable housing, especially along public transit corridors.

Develop affordable and mixed-income housing on city-owned properties.

Spend money to improve public housing units.

‘Pricing older adults out’

The Pima Council on Aging has seen a significant increase recently in both the frequency and urgency of housing-related calls from senior residents.

“Rent increases are pricing older adults out of their housing, including those who qualify for Section 8 who are being forced to move because their landlords are no longer accepting Section 8 vouchers,” said W. Mark Clark, president and CEO of the agency. “Those same rent increases mean that there is little affordable housing to be found.”

Between May and November this year, the agency’s helpline received nearly 2,000 inquiries about affordable housing, eviction help, and rental and mortgage assistance.

Older adults generally are not losing jobs or facing other income-related issues due to COVID-19, Clark said, so they don’t qualify for some of the other assistance that’s available now.

Additionally, he said, seniors living on fixed low incomes “lack the resources to pay for moving costs and deposits, and may lack the physical strength and mobility to pack and move their belongings.”

The Pima Council on Aging can assist some of the callers with moving arrangements and other resources for these one-time costs. However, Clark said, “systemic solutions are needed.”

One idea so far: In 2022, with funding from the city of Tucson and Pima County, PCOA is planning to start a home-sharing program that will match older adults with space in their homes to share with renters in need of affordable housing.

‘Bringing landlords out of the woodwork’

Morales joined the city two years ago after working as housing director in Mesa for four years and, prior to that, overseeing Section 8 housing in Phoenix for six years.

When she arrived, one of her first goals was to get payments made on time to landlords taking Section 8 vouchers. The city provides that portion of the rent to the landlord on behalf of the voucher holder.

The goal has been met, she said. “Some may say they have late payments but it is usually related to landlords not complying with inspections.”

With the current market, however, Morales said finding housing for voucher holders is really challenging even with timely payments. The city has added navigators to help find landlords who will take the vouchers but it’s hard to find rentals that meet the requirements and are affordable.

“We have our landlord incentive program and that seems to be helping but it’s not bringing the landlords out of the woodwork,” she said.

The rent increases, she said, are “like nothing Tucson has ever seen before.”

The city has increased its payments as much as it can, she said. Currently there is a waiting list of about 1,000 families and no one new will be added until that list is whittled down.

“Every time we increase those rents, it’s more funds going out the door,” Morales said. “Right now, we’re still maximizing and using all the funding we have and are trying not to reduce the number of families we’re serving.”

A saving grace, she said, has been the emergency rental assistance program, which can provide a security deposit and up to three months of rent.

“We are going through those funds so quickly,” she said, “because there is so much need.”

The city owns and operates more than 1,500 units of public housing; the average age of the units is 41 years.

A recent analysis showed about $48 million is needed to address the physical needs over the next 20 years, while the immediate need is $13 million. The average amount of funding needed is $44,000 per unit, Morales is telling the City Council.

Racial, ethnic disparities

Keith G. Bentele, an associate research professor with the University of Arizona’s Southwest Institute for Research on Women, regularly tracks local trends related to housing, evictions and employment.

His latest findings, published in October, are in a report called Housing Insecurity Indicators & Potential Homelessness Estimates for Arizona and Pima County.

Here’s some of what he’s seeing: Job growth nationwide has been extremely strong in recent months, he said, and this trend is also true in Arizona, where the unemployment rate fell from 6.8% in June to 5.7% in September.

Despite this positive trend, Bentele found concerning developments in the most recent Census Household Pulse Survey wave, conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 11.

The proportion of Arizona renters reporting that they were not current on rent — meaning they owe money for housing — rose to 11.8%, Bentele said, up from 7.3% in the previous wave. About 35% of those renters were behind 8 months or more.

“With the distribution of rental assistance and the recovering economy, one would hope that this proportion of non-current renters would be falling over time,” he said. Instead, he said, the moving average has been around 10% since July.

Also of concern, Bentele said: Renters who are not current on rental payments are increasingly reporting it’s “very likely” they will be evicted in the next two months. That jumped from 9.5% in the last wave to 24.4% in this most recent survey wave.

This translates into roughly 27,000 renter households statewide experiencing that level of housing insecurity.

Racial and ethnic disparities are also a factor in being non-current on rent and finding it very difficult to meet usual expenses: 35% of Black or African American households, 24% of Hispanic or Latino households and only 2.5% of non-Hispanic white households reported not being current on their rent.

Morales’ materials prepared for the City Council say: “Racism in housing practices has produced systemic inequalities and contributed to the housing segregation pattern of Tucson.”

‘Harder than ever to transition people’

Pima County’s head constable, Kristen Randall, carries out eviction orders from the county’s Justice Court while also trying to help people find new housing.

Randall said several issues are contributing to an increase in homelessness and housing insecurity, “most notably the expiration of the (pandemic) eviction moratorium, steeply increasing rent prices, potential first-time home buyers balking at current home prices, and challenges with rapid rehousing.”

“Since the expiration of the moratorium I have seen a sharp increase in the amount of evictions filed, with few affordable options available to families who need to find new housing,” she said. “Shelters are also at max capacity and it is harder than ever to transition people following an eviction.”

While eviction rates rise and fall, nearly 300 eviction requests were made in Pima County during the last week of October, bringing the caseload up to about 80% of what it was before the pandemic started — and eviction moratoriums began — in March 2020.

Attorney Andy Flagg began heading the county’s new Office of Emergency Eviction Legal Services in January 2021. In the last few months, the office’s work has increased, he said, and currently about 200 landlords and tenants call for help and guidance each week.

The office is also referring about 45 tenants a week to attorneys for a consultation about a pending eviction and are helping about 50 tenants a week with rental assistance applications.

From August through October 2021, it has provided 377 consultations and provided full legal representation in 58 cases. Of those, 28 cases resolved in favor of the landlord, two in favor of the tenant, eight were settled between the parties, and 10 were dismissed. There are eight cases pending.

Like Randall, Flagg says the shortage of affordable housing options is a daily struggle.

After getting $20,000 from a county emergency solutions grant a few weeks ago, Randall has been able to place four recently evicted families in hotels while they look for permanent housing.

The booming rental market means that having an eviction record is making it that much harder for people and families to find new places to live, she said.

“Pair that with requirements that a prospective tenant’s income be roughly three times the rental cost at a time when midtown rents are at record highs, families are being held in the center of a maelstrom for which there are very few options out,” she said.

Randall said as rents increase, she is also seeing people who are elderly and disabled facing evictions in higher numbers.

“Their Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance payments are not even close to enough to pay market-rate rent,” Randall said. “These are often the most challenging population to re-house even in normal times, and I’m terrified that vulnerable people will fall through the cracks.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or

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New rules will prevent landlords from rejecting tenants because they rely on housing assistance funds, a pervasive issue across Tucson. Property owners have been scared away from renting to subsidized Tucsonans because of previous city failures, but officials insist that's a thing of the past as they explore more program improvements. 

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