The joint eviction assistance program between Pima County and the city of Tucson has been lauded for its success in adeptly distributing millions of dollars worth of federal rent and utility aid to constituents.
But an apparent slow down in the program’s process caused county supervisors to question Community and Workforce Development, the county department in charge of eviction aid, about its progress in providing assistance to constituents at risk of losing their housing.
While the program has been a joint city-county effort, Tucson’s portion of federal eviction funding has run dry, causing it to leave the program in the county’s hands.
“We seem to be much slower in providing that rental assistance … we have received numerous calls about how long it was taking to get that assistance,” Supervisor Sharon Bronson said at the board’s June 21 meeting.
Dan Sullivan, the director of Community and Workforce Development, told the board his staff is handling a larger number of applications after the city left the eviction program.
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“We thought it was the right thing to do to transition those (city) cases over to us,” Sullivan told the board. “Right now we’re working through that. Some of the cases that we’ve seen that were transferred over to us from (the city) date back to January.”
Bronson was quick to express her dismay at the city’s withdraw and said, “I’m a little appalled that the city is not a partner.”
Both the city and county received Emergency Rental Assistance, or ERA funds, as part of a federal program to provide about $25 billion to state and local governments for those financially impacted by COVID-19. The city received $61.5 million of those funds, while the county received about $44.2 million.
The county anticipates receiving more ERA funds, but the city quickly ran out of money as the vast majority of applicants seeking aid were Tucson residents. While the county processed some city cases, most were for residents outside of Tucson.
“We knew that we had to transition out because we were going to run out of funds,” Tucson Housing and Community Development Director Liz Morales said. “We went through lots of conversations, both the city and the county, about what this transition would look like. And the county opted to take it all and use their staff to get through the remainder of those applications.”
Pima County has historically provided rent and utility assistance through the Community Assistance Division, a sub-department of Community and Workforce Development that connects low-income residents to a variety of social support services.
The city originally started its eviction assistance program on its own, Morales said, contracting with nonprofit agencies to disperse CARES Act funds. With the receipt of ERA funds, the city combined eviction aid efforts with the county in early 2021.
Tucson contracted with the nonprofit Community Investment Corporation to handle its portion of the work, which provided more than $54 million to about 10,000 households in partnership with 10 sub-contracted nonprofits, according to CIC Executive Director Danny Knee.
But when Tucson, and C assistanceIC, foresaw its funding coming to an end, the county was left on its own to run the eviction program.
“We knew about those transition issues, and how those issues were slowing down payments to landlords and tenants,” Supervisor Rex Scott said. “What we didn’t know, until (the June 21 meeting) was that the city either already has or intends to just completely pull out of the program.”
Although supervisors weren’t alerted to the city’s intent to withdraw, Sullivan said the decision was part of an ongoing “collective dialogue.”
“It’s not like it was a sudden thing. Without the context of everything, it may seem sudden, but we’ve been sort of in talks about who is going to continue this on,” Sullivan said.
In May, CIC handed over about 3,500 remaining cases to the county. The city will issue its last eviction assistance payments on July 15, but the website administering the program has been transferred to the county.
Throughout its time dispersing eviction assistance funds, CIC had to work with unclear amounts of funding as different tranches of ERA money came in, according to Knee.
“We were running through funding at a pace such that we had spent the money before the next reallocation had come in,” he said. “We had 10 organizations that had hired staff to work on this program … we at one point were having to actually front some of the money to pay them, and also front some of the assistance money that was going to the landlords and tenants.”
Sullivan admits there were “some instances where communications have broken down,” but says the county-run eviction assistance program is on track to continue and plans to sub-contract with other agencies to get funds out.
Morales said the conversation about the city discontinuing its participation in the program should be discussed in the context of its overall success.
“What might have gotten lost in this conversation that I think is important is this started as a partnership, and it was super strong,” she said. “We did a lot of really important work for people who were in serious distress through the pandemic, people being unemployed and being in a position of being at risk of becoming evicted or getting their utility shut off. The partnership we did, I’m super proud of, and I would do it all over again with the county.”
No ‘formal application process’
The pot of ERA funds grew for both governments when the Arizona Department of Economic Security failed to meet the spending threshold of the program that required recipients to use at least 65% of its ERA funds by September 2021. Part of those unused funds were rerouted to the county and city, which have received about $17 million and $24 million in reallocations, respectively.
While the city ran out of eviction funding, the county still has $11.1 million left to spend and is anticipating receipt of $15 million more ERA funds from DES.
At the board’s meeting, supervisors questioned why the city didn’t apply for more funding. However, there’s no defined application process to receive reallocated funds from the state.
“It’s not a formal application process, it’s sort of like a partnership we have with DES … It’s been a continuing dialogue with the DES to share some of their excess funds,” Sullivan said.
Furthermore, Morales said it didn’t make sense for the city to appeal to DES for more funding.
“CIC had given us a notice per their contract that they were ready to exit. So if we apply for more funds, we don’t have the infrastructure or the program here to carry on additional eviction prevention,” she said. “We did what we needed to do and we’re going to move on to the work that we do well, which is housing and working with our nonprofits. The eviction prevention work is best left in the hands of the county.”
A county-only program
Pima County has provided assistance to nearly 16,000 households and dispersed more than $36 million in federal emergency funding, according to the Community and Workforce Development department.
While county is taking on an external assistance number of eviction cases, Sullivan emphasizes the success of eviction efforts beyond direct monetary aid.
Community and Workforce Development has a block of hotel rooms dedicated to high-risk individuals who lose their homes, as well as an Emergency Eviction Legal Services, or EELS, program that provides free legal help to those facing evictions.
To date, the program has provided legal assistance in 729 eviction cases from August 2021 to May 2022. While the county uses its American Rescue Plan dollars to pay lawyers, ERA funds are often distributed in cases where tenants owe rent and can pay landlords to settle their cases.
“EELS’ role in that is really just to be the doorway into the program and to help prioritize payment to keep the eviction from getting served,” said Andy Flagg, the deputy director of Community and Workforce Development who oversees the EELS program. “We have had some real success in getting people in places using ERA funding for rehousing.”
Flagg said eviction cases are now plateauing at about 90% of pre-pandemic levels. However, other socioeconomic factors like skyrocketing rents and Tucson’s volatile housing market are still creating the need for assistance.
“There is a real challenge for folks who are going to need to find another place to find something that they can afford,” Flagg said.
It’s unclear when Pima County will receive the $15 million disbursement from DES. But as was the case with the city, that funding won’t last forever.
“The stark reality is there is going to be a funding clip in the community one day,” Sullivan said. “(The $15 million) gives us more time to plan out what it looks like for our community when we don’t have these federal funds to keep people in a house and keep people in their homes.”
But even without the city’s help, Sullivan believes the county’s multi-faceted eviction prevention services will provide a comprehensive program for all county residents.
“We’re able to stack the other services that we have within the department, like people who are at our shelter or are facing eviction, that we can intentionally case manage them and co-enroll them into our workforce programs to get them into better jobs,” he said. “So it really is a whole continuum. I would say we’re just scratching the surface of innovation when it comes to the potential of this program.”
Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at firstname.lastname@example.org