The Maricopa County Eviction Prevention Legal Assistance Program assists dozens of Maricopa County residents facing eviction by providing legal assistance, mediation, and eviction court representation to prevent residents from being evicted for nonpayment of rent. Maricopa County is accomplishing this through an ongoing partnership with a nonprofit law firm, Community Legal Services, who represents and assists these vulnerable persons. From August 2021 through February 2022, the program has provided legal assistance to more than 170 residents and prevented 24 evictions.
Problem or Need for the Program
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shutdowns caused many Maricopa County residents to be unable to pay for rent. Although programs such as eviction moratoriums helped delay evictions for a short period and federal programs such as Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) helped many low-income persons pay their rent fees, an unknown number Maricopa County residents facing eviction may not have been eligible for, or were unaware of ERA. For example, national data by the Eviction Lab, Preliminary Analysis: Eviction Filing Patterns in 2021 (Hepburn, et al. March 2022), shows that in 2021 evictions were nearly 50 percent of prior years’ trends with Phoenix, Arizona having between an eviction rate approximately 60% of its pre-Pandemic levels. However, when the eviction moratorium ended evictions have been steadily increasing to 75% of the pre-Pandemic levels.
Further, tenants face a significant disadvantage during the court proceedings of the eviction process. During the eviction process landlords and/or their legal assistance (i.e. attorneys) would bring their eviction paperwork and case in front of a Maricopa County judge. Tenants, who are often incapable of affording a lawyer to represent them or assist them (while simultaneously not being able to afford their rent) were ill-equipped to effectively defend themselves in eviction court. A common trend nationwide is that in cases such as these tenants where tenants feel unable to defend themselves in court may simply choose not to show up to court. In these cases tenants simply don’t have the ability to fight eviction filings or reach a positive resolution with the landlord and are likely to be evicted.
Further, although the County judges could force the landlords and tenants to go to mediation, without legal assistance many tenants were unaware of their legal rights and were not equipped to go to mediation and obtain a favorable outcome (prevent eviction). The County saw this as a critical gap in preventing evictions during the COVID Pandemic and saw that American Rescue Plan Act funding could fill this gap.
Description of the Program
The Maricopa County Human Services Department set aside $2.6 million for a partnership with a nonprofit legal firm, Community Legal Services, to assist any resident of Maricopa County facing eviction and provide legal assistance/advice and represent those clients in mediation, negotiations, and eviction court if necessary; all at no cost to the client. Community Legal Services (CLS) is a specialized law firm, with experienced attorneys, dedicated to serving vulnerable persons and has a strong track record for successfully preventing evictions, even prior to the Pandemic.
This Eviction Prevention Legal Assistance Program is major component of Maricopa County’s overall eviction prevention strategy. This strategy is a multi-faceted approach to reducing evictions by reducing socio-economic barriers clients face. This strategy, in addition to legal assistance, includes providing emergency rental assistance, supplemental assistance/coaching for clients to obtain rental assistance, and ongoing case management. This strategy has been so successful it has prevented more than 1000 evictions each month in Maricopa County.
To ensure the program operates effectively, CLS will, on a monthly basis, provide the County with detailed performance reports showing the work completed. These reports include metrics such as number of clients represented in each County Court, clients assisted in negotiations and mediations, the success rates of that assistance and details of phone and electronic assistance provided to clients throughout the month. This monitoring helps ensure the program continues to meet client needs and helps establish evidence for its effectiveness so that it can be replicated.
Responding to Economic Downturn
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant increase unemployment and joblessness which further meant thousands in Maricopa County were unable to pay rent or utility bills. Although eviction moratoriums and Emergency Rental Assistance, as mentioned, helped stall or slow the number of evictions, many issues still remained and without effective legal assistance many persons still were evicted for nonpayment of rent. According to research done by the Eviction Lab, Preliminary Analysis: Eviction Filing Patterns in 2021 (Hepburn, et al. March 2022), the individuals most likely to be evicted were low-income persons. These tenants, along with being disproportionately impacted in other ways by the economic downturn, were very unlikely to be able to afford any legal assistance or be able to effectively defend themselves in eviction court. Through this program Maricopa County has been able to respond to the economic downturn much more effectively by addressing a critical gap for tenants facing eviction.
Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
During the COVID-19 pandemic some of individuals most likely to be evicted in Maricopa County were low-income persons causing further community inequities. The goal of this program was to achieve more equitable outcomes for all vulnerable persons facing eviction by giving them free legal assistance to help at least reduce the chances of being evicted. By preventing evictions, this program arguably gives tenants a greater overall opportunity to improve their economic situation and improve their self-sufficiency.
The Cost of the Program
The expected cost of the program to Maricopa County over three years is $2.6 million. However, it is important to remember that this program is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act and that Maricopa County chose to specifically partner with a nonprofit law firm specializing in eviction cases. For other jurisdictions that want to implement a similar program the costs will vary based on eviction rates, court dynamics, and number of law firms that are interested in performing this eviction prevention legal work. However, it is also important to weight those costs against the many potential and actual downstream benefits to the jurisdiction. Specifically, using funds to provide legal assistance to clients to prevent evictions directly reduces the homelessness which reduces Maricopa County’s direct costs associated with serving their homeless populations. Further, reducing homelessness is likely to have additional benefits to any jurisdiction that chooses to emulate this program/approach such as improving community health metrics and reducing crime.
Results/Success of the Program
From August 2021 to February 2022 more than 170 persons have been provided legal assistance and 24 households were not evicted because of this funds. CLS, through this program:
- Receives between 1-7 calls for assistance each week and provides legal assistance and resolves issues.
- Conducts 2-4 formal negotiations with landlords on the tenant’s behalf each month and so far has had a 100% success rate (preventing evictions)
- Represents 1-4 clients each County court and so far has had a 100% success rate (preventing evictions).
However, these results do not fully capture the benefits that clients see from this program. Specifically, by preventing evictions, many families now have time/opportunities to gain employment or otherwise change their economic situation such as through obtaining other social/economic supports or regain employment allowing them to regain self-sufficiency. For those reasons, Maricopa County sees this program as having many direct and indirect benefits to the County overall.
Worthiness of Award
This program deserves the Achievement Award because of helps fill a critical gap in services to County residents, its applicability to many other counties, and demonstrated results. Although, as mentioned, the eviction moratorium and emergency rental assistance helped reduce the overall number of evictions there was still a critical gap that most jurisdictions will likely notice in their own community; a lack of legal assistance for tenants. Tenants who are unable to pay for rent are likely unable to afford legal assistance and are likely to encounter a landlord with resources to obtain legal assistance to evict the tenant. Maricopa County saw that by directly funding a specialized law firm to provide eviction prevention legal assistance to tenants this gap could be filled, or at least greatly reduced. Further, the demonstrated results of this program show that the program is effective and can have many positive effects on jurisdictions that choose to emulate this practice. Because this is an innovative practice that directly addresses a critical gap in preventing evictions Maricopa County believes this program is worthy of the Award.