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Pima Supervisor Matt Heinz: My plan to help renters facing eviction get legal counsel
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Pima Supervisor Matt Heinz: My plan to help renters facing eviction get legal counsel

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

The rapid approach of Wednesday, March 31, is causing dread, fear and anxiety for thousands of people in our community. That is the day the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires, leaving tenants who have been unable to pay rent — due to the financial hardships of the coronavirus pandemic — in danger of losing their housing.

Let’s be clear who we’re talking about: families with young children, veterans who served our country, refugees who came to the U.S. in search of safety and security, and people who, despite their best efforts, are just unable to make ends meet.

According to Patty Machelor’s reporting in the Arizona Daily Star, there are 4,376 outstanding eviction orders that have been filed in Pima County since March 1, 2020. While there’s no way to know how many will be carried out, those issued in the last 45 days are immediately enforceable on April 1. And that number is likely low as it doesn’t capture the cases in which a landlord delayed pursuing eviction because of the CDC moratorium.

In other words, a “tsunami of evictions” is heading to Pima County.

Evictions don’t happen in isolation – they have cascading effects through the community and local economy. When a person loses housing, they’re also much more likely to lose their job. Children’s education is disrupted and mental health endangered. And evictions aren’t just bad for tenants, they’re also bad for landlords and property owners, many of whom will have to write off months of back rent they are owed.

On Tuesday, I’ll ask my colleagues on the Pima County Board of Supervisors to join me in confronting this disaster head on. The ultimate goal is to help tenants and landlords access federal rental assistance dollars that are available now, and to ensure a more equitable system in which tenants are given a fighting chance to respond to eviction filings, understand their rights, and potentially stay in their homes.

Specifically, I will propose allocating $2 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to greatly expand access to counsel for tenants facing eviction proceedings. We need to rapidly expand eviction prevention clinics being provided by community partners like Step Up to Justice and Southern Arizona Legal Aid, where people facing eviction can get free legal advice from a volunteer attorney.

We also need to immediately stand up a program to provide outside private legal counsel to all eligible Pima County residents who have suffered loss of income or financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, are unable to afford counsel, and are currently facing eviction — or will in the coming weeks or months.

The reason for this is simple: When tenants have legal counsel, they’re much less likely to be evicted.

In 2019 and 2020, when tenants facing eviction in Pima County were represented by counsel, they prevailed more than 50% of the time, with the vast majority of those evictions being dismissed.

However, it’s exceedingly rare that tenants have lawyers helping them during the eviction process. In fact, in 2019 and 2020, tenants were represented by counsel in eviction hearings less than 1% of the time. By comparison, landlords/property managers was represented 88% of the time.

Overall, these cases were decided in favor of the landlord or property management company — and against the tenant — in more than 9 cases out of 10. That’s 9 people out of 10 losing their homes, in part because they lacked legal counsel.

An allocation of $2 million for eviction defense services will provide the necessary legal representation for at least 7,000 families in Pima County who are potentially facing eviction in the coming months. I believe it is a small price to pay in order to keep thousands of families in their homes.

Dr. Matt Heinz is a hospitalist in Tucson and represents District 2 on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.


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