92% of Arizona Rent Relief Hasn’t Gone to Renters Article originally posted on AZ Central on May 15, 2020 Fewer than 400 Arizona renters have received money from an emergency state program designed to help people hurt economically by COVID-19 to stay in their homes, Arizona Department of Housing data shows. That leaves 92% of the funding, or more than $4.6 million, sitting unused while a record number of Arizonans are out of work and some struggle to pay rent. Already, more than 10,000 renters have submitted applications seeking help from the program, the department said. So far, $395,000 has been approved. If funds continue to be distributed at the same rate as in the early weeks, it could take about a year to allocate all the money, according to an Arizona Republic analysis. But officials with the program say they’re doing everything they can to speed it up. “We recognize that for people needing rental assistance, this is a time-sensitive issue and we are approaching this with urgency,” Arizona Department of Housing spokesperson Janelle Johnsen said. “We’re working … to identify roadblocks, find solutions and get dollars out the door faster.” Some in the housing industry aren’t happy with the pace. “There’s too much at stake here for this program not to succeed,” Arizona Multihousing Association President and CEO Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus said. “If tenants don’t get the relief they need, we risk a huge bubble of evictions later this year. And if that rental relief doesn’t also help property owners pay their bills, we risk foreclosures and tanking Arizona’s construction sector and our economy.” Program rules may exclude many renters One reason the money has been slow to arrive is to be expected, housing experts said. Creating an application process and training employees took a few weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey announced the eviction prevention program March 27, said Eva Felix, who oversees a nonprofit helping to process applications, the Mesa Community Action Network. “It’s slow because it’s new,” Felix said. “I think it’s going to move faster now that all the dominoes are in place.” But other issues likely are at play as well, housing advocates said: Staffing to process applications: The Department of Housing delegated responsibility for processing applications to 11 community action agencies, which have the most direct contact with families in need. But some agencies are understaffed, and they face higher demand for services than usual, according to Cynthia Zwick, who runs a state association of community action agencies. Eligibility: The rules for eligibility could be too narrow. For instance, renters with savings equivalent to three months of rent or more are disqualified. Documentation: The proof of financial need may be too burdensome. For instance, every adult on the lease must provide their driver’s license, bank records and pay stubs from before and after the pandemic. The records must be re-submitted every month. Programs use such rules to prevent fraud and ensure people who actually need help receive aid, said Sheila Harris, former director of the Arizona Department of Housing. But parameters that are excessive can have the opposite effect, causing people who need help to go empty-handed, she said. Nearly 80% of renters who submitted applications failed to provide enough documentation to be approved, according to the housing department. Thousands more have started applications but stopped short of submitting them, Johnsen said. When Arizona announced the eviction relief funds, Harris said she was impressed by the state’s efforts. But she’s disappointed in how few renters have benefited so far. “I would reexamine the requirements and see if they are necessary,” Harris said. “You don’t want the requirements to be so onerous that people aren’t taking advantage of it.” State tries to simplify application The rules were even stricter at the beginning of the program. Initially, the Arizona Department of Housing required two months of bank records, pay stubs from before and after COVID-19 and identification for every adult in a household, regardless of whether they appear on the lease, Johnsen said. That has been scaled back to one month of bank records, pay stubs from before and after COVID-19 and identification for all adults on the lease. That still would require roommates who are not family members to share personal financial information to complete the application, even if only one of the renters was affected by COVID-19. Arizona could simplify the application by requiring records from the applicant only, said Zwick, executive director of a state association for community action agencies called Wildfire. “That’s a lot of documentation to collect and upload,” Zwick said. “I have to believe if you really aren’t in need of this money, you wouldn’t go through this process. Sometimes when we make these programs, we create barriers that prevent people from accessing the help that they need, rather than making it an easy process.” Renters aren’t receiving huge amounts of money from the program, she added. The average is about $1,000 per applicant, according to state data, putting payouts well below the $2,000 per renter limit set by the state and less than many cities’ median rents. Zwick also questioned why Arizona would disqualify renters from receiving assistance if they have savings equal to three months or more of rent. Financial responsibility classes often encourage low-income people to set aside savings. “You’re being told, ‘You’re doing all the right things. And now we’re going to take that away from you and render you unable to pay any of your bills before we help you with rent,'” Zwick said. “It’s counterintuive.” Other changes may help Officials are trying to make the program better for tenants. Community action agencies have brought in extra staff to speed up application reviews, Felix said. And the Department of Housing updated the process so applicants can now: Upload clear photos of documents from a smartphone. Scan and fax documents at Office Depot and Office Max for free by using a coupon on the state website: https://housing.az.gov/general-public/eviction-prevention-assistance. Ask staffers at community action agencies to upload documents for them. Call 211 operators for help 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Press 6 for the COVID-19 hotline. Press 5 for eviction prevention. Upload a short letter describing why they are unable to provide a document if it is missing. Advocates say more could be done But housing advocates say more could be done. The Arizona Multihousing Association sent a letter to the state this week recommending changes to the program, such as: Adding an additional $25 million to the fund. Allowing the Department of Housing or a single Community Action Agency to run the program statewide to make it more efficient. Slashing the amount of documentation required from applicants. Empowering rental property owners to apply for relief on behalf of residents who can’t pay rent. Landlords and property managers can play an important role in helping renters get aid by telling them about the program and even walking them through the application step by step, said Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Housing Coalition. Even though the number of Phoenix-area renters failing to pay rent this May was only slightly higher than a year ago — 14% in 2020 compared to 11% in 2019 — the number could grow as people’s savings run out, Serviss said. “I think the demand is going to spike exponentially,” she said. Hopefully, Arizona’s eviction prevention funds will start flowing faster than “molasses,” Serviss said. “I was surprised there was still funding available,” she said. “That impacts these households that are really struggling.” Can’t pay your rent? Here’s how to get help 1. Apply for up to $2,000 per month toward your rent from the Arizona Department of Housing: https://housing.az.gov/general-public/eviction-prevention-assistance 2. File paperwork with your landlord to delay eviction. Your landlord can still file for an eviction order against you, but following these steps should prevent a constable from locking you out of your home: Tell your landlord in writing that you have lost income or you or a household member have been quarantined because of COVID-19 using a form like this: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6819854/Covid19FormFillable.pdf. Provide documentation such as a doctor’s note or pay stubs. Write a statement explaining why you are eligible for help if you don’t have documentation. Keep copies of your form and documents. Send a copy of your form and documents through certified mail or hand-deliver them to your landlord and keep a record of the date it was submitted. 3. Ask your landlord if they have a federally backed mortgage. If so, the property owner can receive assistance from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in exchange for not evicting tenants hurt by the pandemic: https://www.fanniemae.com/portal/media/corporate-news/2020/renters-covid-19-multifamily-7002.html.