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Renters In Arizona Struggle To Get Relief From State

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly 11,000 Arizonans have applied for help paying their rent due to the COVID-19 crisis. But two months after the state set aside millions of dollars for rent relief, fewer than a thousand applicants have actually received help. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Katherine Davis-Young reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Twenty-five-year-old nanny Ronnie Wollenzier was renting a house in Phoenix with her sister when the pandemic began.

RONNIE WOLLENZIER: I love my home. I've made my home here, you know? I love the neighborhood.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Wollenzier working in mid-March. She applied for unemployment but wasn't paid right away. Her sister decided to move back in with their parents, so by May 1, Wollenzier owed twice as much in rent but had zero income. Ultimately, she couldn't come up with the $1,457 she owed, and her landlord sued to evict her.

WOLLENZIER: He had a for rent sign put in my yard.

DAVIS-YOUNG: In March, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey placed a moratorium on evictions through July. But rent is still due, and Arizona eviction courts are still hearing cases. The governor also allocated $5 million to provide eligible renters impacted by COVID-19 with up to $2,000 a month, but so far, only about 600 renters have been helped. Wollenzier is still waiting for a response.

WOLLENZIER: It's not an easy process. You need a scanner. You need to be able to fax things. Some of these documents I don't have access to, so that's been kind of tricky to navigate.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Applications are being reviewed by regional agencies. Bruce Liggett, who directs one in Maricopa County, says requirements are more cumbersome than established aid programs like food stamps.

BRUCE LIGGETT: Well, the COVID experience could have happened nicely on the end of the month, or it could have happened on the 13 of the month. So then income calculations become a little more challenging for us.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Arizona's Department of Housing declines to provide an interview for this story, but a spokesperson's emailed statement said the department has adjusted some requirements to make the process easier and asks for fewer documents. But Courtney LeVinus with a state landlords trade group says the department needs to go further, like allowing landlords to apply on behalf of renters. She says property owners stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

COURTNEY LEVINUS: We can't continue to shift the burden from the resident to the rental owner. It doesn't solve the problem.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Joan Serviss with the nonprofit Arizona Housing Coalition says there's already an affordability crisis here. Phoenix's population has grown more than any other U.S. city in the last decade, and rent prices here are rising at twice the rate of the national average. The region's unsheltered homeless population has nearly tripled in five years. If people get evicted now, Serviss fears, cheaper housing simply isn't out there.

JOAN SERVISS: They winnow down their savings. Then they stay at a friend or family's house, winnow down that relationship. So they exhaust their social supports, and that's when they show up at the homeless shelters.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Bruce Liggett with Maricopa County says agencies like his aren't being given enough resources.

LIGGETT: The fact that we've got almost 4,000 cases assigned to us, and we have the ability to pay for 500 - is our current estimate - means that most people are not going to be able to receive this benefit.

DAVIS-YOUNG: In the time since newly unemployed nanny Ronnie Wollenzier submitted her application, a judge ruled in her landlord's favor.

WOLLENZIER: That includes all of these fees that he is charging to me in a moment where I'm the brokest (ph) I've ever been.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Under Arizona's eviction moratorium, she should be able to stay in her home until July. She can appeal the decision. Beyond that, she says, she doesn't know what she'll do.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 27, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline and introduction on this story incorrectly called the renters relief a federal program. It is actually run by the state.
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