A local legal aid program has been trying to help people and families stay in their homes for as long as they can during the pandemic, ahead of the expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions that is set for the end of the year.
Faith Van Horn, an attorney for DNA People's Legal Services, said they continue to see people who assume that people cannot be evicted for any reason because of the former state and current federal moratorium, which is not true. She said many people are unaware about how evictions work, including that a notice of an eviction does not actually count as an eviction.
“A lot of times people will see that notice, and think, ‘This is the eviction. I’m being evicted. There’s nothing else I can do,’” Van Horn said. “Then they won’t come into us, and they definitely should.”
Renters throughout the pandemic have fallen behind on payments after sickness and medical bills, layoffs and pay cuts have hurt employees throughout the country. Arizona’s moratorium on evictions ended Oct. 31, but the federal government’s residential eviction moratorium is still in place. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention halted evictions until Dec. 31, although evictions can still proceed if the landlord is evicting tenants for any reason other than non-payment of rent.
The Arizona Department of Housing has given $4.3 million in rental assistance as of late November to help 2,230 households across the state. In total, 30,432 have submitted requests, with 6,763 households in review.
Coconino County Community Services has helped 241 households and provided more than $350,000 in rental assistance this year. Currently, 77 applications are in review.
DNA People's Legal Services in Flagstaff is one of the main legal aid groups in the city that provides free legal help to people without the funds to pay for their own lawyer. DNA People's Legal Services provides help to people on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and has offices across Arizona and New Mexico.
However, the Flagstaff office’s small legal team takes cases across multiple specialties. They are required to provide legal assistance for people who apply in need of help across most civil matters if the client falls below 125% of the federal poverty level. The legal aid prioritizes cases that can help raise people out of poverty like family law, taxes and unemployment claims.
“If they’re our client, they can’t afford to hire an attorney,” Van Horn said. “It’s important those people have representation as well.”
Charlie Doughty, new managing attorney for DNA People's Legal Services, said their team has recently overturned an eviction and helped people negotiate extensions during the pandemic. In light of how the public health risks increase for people without stable shelter, the team has trying to do whatever they can to keep people in their homes.
“That is where our office is most impactful during this entire pandemic,” Doughty said.
Van Horn has been conducting free webinars every month or two through the Coconino County Law Library to help teach landlords and tenants alike about their rights during the pandemic. Information changes fast, but she said her webinars cover the beginning to end of a rental agreement and covers things like evictions, security deposits and maintenance.
“I try to preempt a lot of the disputes that we see,” Van Horn said.
Doughty said many evictions occur in the city, but that it's hard for them to measure if people don't know there are ways to fight it.
“A big number of [evictions] don’t come to us. They just don’t come to court,” Doughty said.
When handling eviction cases keeping people in their homes for a few extra weeks or even days can really help a person or family.
“If you start with the premise that being sheltered — having that basic part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs covered — it’s tremendous for people,” Doughty said. “I think it’s also having a community-wide impact on making sure that people don’t have to go down to the shelter, and making sure those people don’t end up in other people’s homes to help avoid the spread of the pandemic.”