Val­ley evic­tions spike as cri­sis wors­ens

Court data: Over 25,000 or­ders in Mari­copa County

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Alden Woods

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.

TOM TINGLE/THE REPUB­LIC

Mari­copa County Con­sta­ble Ken­neth Sumner serves evic­tion no­tices as part of his job.

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