Valley evictions spike as crisis worsens
Court data: Over 25,000 orders in Maricopa County
A nationwide affordable-housing crisis deepened across Maricopa County last year, as rising rents and shrinking options led to yet another spike in rental evictions.
More than 25,000 eviction orders moved through the county’s Justice Courts in 2017, according to court data obtained by The Arizona Republic. It was the fifth-highest total in county history and a 12 percent jump from the year before.
It also reversed a two-year trend that saw the county’s eviction rates fall after peaking in 2014. Local experts and housing advocates were largelyunable to explain the bump, but some speculated that it may be the result of a strong rental market, with high demand and even higher prices.
“Landlords are in charge right now,” Phoenix housing Director Cindy Stotler said. “It’s all connected.”
The new figures are based on the total number of writs of restitution filed in the Maricopa County Justice Court system. Writs of restitution are the final legal step in an eviction process, spurring local constables to front doors.
Evictions — and the life-altering chaos they can create — have recently become a trending topic among housing advocates as tenant-protection laws sputter through statehouses and city councils.
Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” recently launched the Eviction Lab, which is attempting to track eviction data across the nation.
The Eviction Lab’s early numbers, which don’t yet include the entire United States, show over 900,000 evictions were ordered in 2016.
By almost every available metric, Phoenix is one of the worst cities in America for low-income renters. The average rental price has climbed more than $150 a month since early 2016, and the apartment vacancy rate hovers below 5 percent. Whole city blocks have been swallowed by luxury apartments, in some cases clearing out what was once moderately priced housing. Wait lists for government programs like Section 8 or public housing can stretch on for years.
For every 100 extremely low-income renters, households that earn less than 30 percent of the area median income, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last month, the Phoenix area offers just 20 affordable and available rental units. Nationwide, that figure is 35. Frantic moves and bright-orange eviction notices have become the most visible signs of distress. Every day, hundreds of tenants work their way through the lightning-fast Justice Court system. Most lose their homes.
Few parts of Maricopa County remain untouched, but the biggest jumps in eviction rates clustered around the evermore-expensive neighborhoods of central and downtown Phoenix, and the northwest Valley, which has for years struggled with limited transportation and rental housing options. Writs of restitution climbed across Maricopa County in 2017
The county’s Justice Courts issued 2,778 more writs of restitution, which finalize eviction cases, in 2017 than the year before. The biggest increases came in central and downtown Phoenix’s evermore-expensive neighborhoods and high-poverty pockets of the northwest Valley, according to Maricopa County Justice Courts.
Delivering the worst news
Nowhere was the increase worse than in the Country Meadows Justice Precinct, which spreads across high-poverty chunks of Glendale and west Phoenix. Constable Ken Sumner’s workload skyrocketed to 2,089 evictions last year, a 66 percent increase over 2016.
As his precinct’s elected constable, Sumner is tasked with carrying out whatever orders the Justice Court issues. He delivers restraining orders and subpoenas, but as his precinct’s cheap housing has faded into history, evictions have overtaken his days.
“If my workload is going up 10 percent, it’s not going to be that noticeable,” Sumner said in an interview Thursday. He guessed that deputy constables handled about one third of the evictions in his precinct, easing some of his burden. “Just working a little longer days.”
Since he took office in 2013, Sumner has seen his precinct’s cheap housing disappear, replaced by high-priced rentals that don’t seem to fit into the landscape.
So Sumner drives through the neighborhoods where he grew up, stopping at as many as 10 rental homes a day, leaving orange stickers and frantic moves in his wake. Sometimes the guilt eats at him. He tries to remind himself that there are few crooks in evictions. Often it’s just a broken contract, an unexpected crisis that pushes a family into debt it can’t escape.
Most days, he serves more evictions than some rural counties do in an entire year.
‘It’s like a snowball’
Country Meadows is not alone. Last year, all but one of the county’s 26 Justice Courts issued at least 299 writs of restitution. Ten courts issued more than a thousand writs.
The total number of evictions in Maricopa County is roughly equal toall of New York City, where about twice as many people live. But New York recently passed a law guaranteeing a lawyer to everybody facing eviction.
New York City landlords filed about 150,000 evictions a year between 2013 and 2015, according to a study by the housing advocacy group JustFix.nyc. Those filings led to only about 25,000 eviction orders each year.
In Maricopa County, a streamlined legal process often leaves people facing eviction without a lawyer and facing an overworked judge who may have 25 more cases to see that morning. Tenants are left with three bad options: Pay back rent and late fees they can’t afford, agree to leave the home, or state their case and hope for the best.
“It’s like a snowball,” said Pam Bridge, a senior staff attorney with Community Legal Services who focuses on tenant protection. “It’s really hard for tenants to get the money together, to get an attorney.”
Many landlords argue that a slower process would cost them money by allowing a non-paying tenant to stay while the court case plays out.
But few tenants ever touch the legal system. Many are forced from their homes before the constable arrives, choosing to leave on their own rather than waiting for the orange sticker. Many move out when the landlord files for eviction, knowing a constable would soon be on the way.
Maricopa County Constable Kenneth Sumner serves eviction notices as part of his job.