DNA People’s Legal Services recently received American Rescue Plan Act funds from both the city and county to fund its housing-related legal aid to locals affected by the pandemic.

Managing attorney Charlie Doughty said he’d been seeing fewer evictions than he’d initially expected after the state and federal moratoriums on evictions ended — which he attributed to the emergency rental assistance program (ERAP). Right now, he said, the number of evictions are about what would be expected in pre-pandemic years.

The Arizona Judicial Branch’s website lists a total of 96,868 eviction filings across the state in fiscal year 2023, a figure that had been rising since a 2021 low of 45,383. It reported Coconino County as having 278 filings in 2023, a count that is lower than 2022’s total of 330. The Flagstaff Justice Court followed a similar pattern, with 183 eviction filings in 2023 and 236 in 2022.

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Coconino County’s eviction rates per 100,000 population were similar to those seen in La Paz and Yavapai counties, and much lower than Maricopa and Pima counties. In 2022, Coconino County reported a rate of 227 filings per 100,000 people, the first rise since 2019’s high of 400 per 100,000.

These rates aren’t surprising, Doughty said.

During the eviction moratoriums, he said, DNA People’s Legal Services had seen “very few evictions.” Most of its housing services during that time focused on providing information about how those moratoriums would affect clients. Most of those clients were able to stay housed during the moratorium.

Emergency rental assistance

Doughty attributed the current rates, which were comparable to those seen pre-pandemic and lower than had been expected after the moratorium’s end, in part to ERAP funds.

“I think that funding has been critical to keep families and tenants housed, probably more so than almost any other measure that could be taken,” he said. “If there’s anything that it would be beneficial to continue to keep folks housed, having some kind of funding like that forward would be great.”

When a client has funding available similar to the kind ERAP provides, Doughty said, it’s easier to help them with the eviction process.

ERAP provides households affected by the pandemic with up to $3,500 a month in rental assistance (for up to 18 months, a total of $63,000 in aid). Eligible households are those at 80% or less of the Area Median Income (this is $50,900 for a household of one in Coconino County, or $72,700 for a household of four) with a demonstrated risk of housing instability and at least one member financially impacted by the pandemic.

“Funding for the DES Emergency Rental Assistance Program is winding down and will be coming to an end this year,” the Arizona Department of Economic Security’s (ADES) website notes as of Sept. 20. ” … Submitted applications will continue to be processed until funding is no longer available.”

The ADES website also includes an announcement that ERAP will be ending on Friday, Oct. 13, with a new Arizona rental assistance program beginning Oct. 15 for households that include children and seniors.

Currently DNA’s work focuses on helping people access those funds and response to eviction notices.

“We found in our county that a lot of landlords were willing to wait and hold off on an eviction if the ERAP funds were in process,” Doughty said. ” … From their perspective, if the tenant had applied for funds, if they had been able to get through the process and get that started, a lot of landlords were willing to hold off on evictions.”

He added: “That was one of the things that really prevented what we expected to be this tsunami of evictions coming in after the eviction moratorium ended. We were ready for that, we had a bunch of attorneys cross-trained on evictions. … Thankfully we didn’t see the huge spike we expected at our office. I think there was a chance that there maybe was an uptick and a lot of folks just felt, ‘I might not be able to benefit from legal services. I’m just going to vacate and not seek out assistance through DNA or through the private attorney.’ That’s a possibility, but we just didn’t see this big, unmanageable spike that we were kind of worried about.”

Rescue plan funding

DNA People’s Legal Services has received American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from both the city and the county to help with eviction prevention for residents impacted by COVID-19. They’ll be used to help low- to moderate-income residents in vulnerable populations with a set of specific legal issues.

The primary focus for these funds are housing and income preservation, according to Doughty. The latter refers to when tenants are given a five-day notice to pay their rent before eviction proceedings begin.

So far, DNA Legal has used county ARPA funds to assist 85 clients. 

The funding has also allowed the organization to raise the income threshold for eligibility. Most of the grants it receives caps the income at which households are eligible to receive aid at 125% of the federal poverty guideline — up to 200% in some situations.

In 2023, 125% is an annual income of $18,225 for a household of one and $37,500 for a household of four.

DNA Legal can serve clients making up to 300% of the federal poverty guideline with the ARPA funds, raising eligibility to include households of one earning up to $43,740 per year, and households of four earning up to $90,000.

In part because of this expanded eligibility, it’s also planning to use the funds to hire an additional attorney and staff member to assist its clients.

Advice for renters

When asked what could make finding a home more affordable for Flagstaff renters, Doughty cited local and state efforts around short-term rentals.

“It’s easy to drive around town and see homes that used to be rental stock and are no longer rental stock,” he said. “ … The biggest thing folks can do, if they’re in the landlord business, they can take a look at whether or not they still need to raise rents, whether or not they are able to maintain lower rents and still maintain a standard of living.

” … That’s probably asking a lot of a small amount of folks, but it’s something that I think a lot of landlords might be able to individually consider their circumstances. And we’ve seen examples of that. Landlords that think they’re the only ones that aren’t raising the rents, they’re not right about that, there are plenty of folks that are keeping their rents low, and I encourage more landlords to consider joining the club.”

For area residents who might be facing an eviction, he advised checking that they’re paying the right amount of rent, including fees and other expenses. While it’s rare, he said DNA People’s Legal Services had seen a few cases of renters being charged for fees that weren’t included in the lease.

“So review your lease, review your addendum, review your supplements and all your policies, and make sure everything you’re being charged is proper,” he said. “ … One of the things that must accompany an eviction complaint is a six-month accounting where rent is disputed. Ask your landlord for that prior to an eviction being filed, just to make sure you’re paying what you’re supposed to be paying.

“Beyond that, the best way to avoid late fees, attorneys fees, court costs is to try to get that amount paid up before it comes to court,” he said. “There are some situations where you can reach out to friends, reach out to family, reach out to church or other social service organizations in order to try to get funds.”

He also advised tenants to ask their landlords about an agreement for partial payments, and to call DNA, especially as its qualifications have expanded.

“We really try to prioritize our eviction cases, and if we’re able to have an attorney help out with work, we’re going to put somebody on that case,” he said.

More information is available at dnalegalservices.org.

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