Months after applying, Phoenix family still waiting for rental aid as eviction moratorium expires

Jessica Boehm
Arizona Republic
"You can never get a human on the phone, it's always a voicemail system," says Melissa Ferralez of contacting the city of Phoenix's rental assistance program. She is hoping to receive aid to help with the back rent on her north-central Phoenix rental home.

Melissa Ferralez applied for rental assistance from Phoenix on March 31. She's still waiting for help to arrive.

Her family is one of thousands who likely will not receive long-ago-requested assistance before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium expires July 31.

Ferralez was laid off from her job as a project manager at a construction company earlier this year after a slowdown at the company during the pandemic and fell behind on rent and utilities at her north-central Phoenix rental home.

Wildfire, the organization distributing aid for Phoenix residents, told Ferralez it had begun processing her application in an email on April 7. As of July 21, she hadn't received another update.

She said she's tried calling the city and Wildfire multiple times per week, but always hits dead ends.

"You can never get a human on the phone, it's always a voicemail system," Ferralez said.

She was unemployed for about two months and has since taken a temporary job in the restaurant industry to make ends meet while she looks for a permanent position elsewhere, which has allowed her to pay rent.

However, she's still behind from the time she was out of work and is counting on the Wildfire rental assistance program to cover the debt.

Thousands could face eviction

The federal government has given the state and some Arizona counties and cities almost $900 million this year to help struggling residents with their rent and utilities, which should be enough to erase all rental debt in the state, according to estimates.

But only a small fraction of that assistance has reached residents in need, and it's unlikely it will reach them before the moratorium expires Saturday.

The eviction moratorium has been extended at the last minute before, but the U.S. Supreme Court forbid President Joe Biden's administration from doing so again in a decision last month.

Your eviction questions answered:Do evictions impact credit scores? Who is covered by the CDC moratorium?

Nearly 10,000 rental aid applications were pending across the five largest rental aid programs in the state as of late July — meaning thousands of Arizona families will be eligible for eviction before they receive assistance.

The Arizona Multifamily Association sent a letter to landlords recommending they refrain from evicting tenants who have applied for rental assistance and are still waiting, but property owners don't have to heed that advice.

Living out of a hotel, waiting for help

Sylvia Haysbert-Stevens sits in her car after learning the extended stay reservation she had booked in Peoria after having been evicted from her home was canceled on March 11, 2021. Despite a moratorium preventing landlords from evicting tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic, a court ordered Stevens to vacate the El Mirage home she had been living in with her daughter and granddaughter.

Sylvia Haysbert-Stevens lost her job teaching cooking at the beginning of the pandemic, but received almost $10,000 in federal rental aid last year to cover the $1,600 monthly payment on an El Mirage rental home.

Early this year, her lease expired and she was evicted. Haysbert-Stevens moved into an extended-stay hotel costing $800 more per month than she paid for the rental home. She worked for the city of Phoenix briefly in the spring but lost that job in May.

Loans from family and friends as well as the stimulus boost to unemployment benefits helped her cover the costs for the hotel while she applied for rental aid from different Valley cities and Maricopa County. So far, she hasn’t received any more help.

She said one Valley housing agency told her rental funds for extended-stay hotels were available, but she’s still waiting.

“No one has contacted me,” said Haysbert-Stevens, who temporarily moved to California to live with her daughter in June. “I needed to come back to Arizona for surgery, but I can’t afford another extended-stay hotel. I’ll probably sleep in my car some nights.”

Families at risk

About 80,000 Arizona renters think they are likely to be evicted during the next two months, according to the latest Census Household Pulse Survey.

About 57,000 of the state’s renters, who believe they will be evicted after the moratorium, have children.

And 56,000 of the renters worried the most about eviction earn less than $35,000 a year.

More than 94,000 Arizona renters have “no confidence” they will be able to pay next month’s rent, according to the latest weekly Census survey.

About 138,500 of the state’s tenants say they are behind on rent.

Both UMOM, the largest family shelter, and Central Arizona Shelter Services, the largest single-adult shelter, are preparing for an increase in people seeking their services.

UMOM has added "new, albeit limited, resources" including funding to prevent families from becoming homeless and emergency housing vouchers for families who have already lost their homes.

CASS has increased the number of people who can stay at its shelter near downtown Phoenix after limiting its capacity because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

"We have seen people evicted during the pandemic and are anticipating an increase," CASS CEO Lisa Glow said.

'It costs a lot of money to be poor':How 1 renter faced 11 evictions in 1 year

Programs can't get money out fast enough

The agencies in Arizona responsible for disbursing the aid say the application requirements from the federal government are more burdensome than traditional rental assistance programs, leaving administrators scrambling to create new protocols while an unprecedented number of renters apply for assistance.

Leaders in Phoenix, where some of the most significant application backlogs have occurred, didn't have a firm grasp on the number of pending applications in late July. 

Initially, a spokesperson told The Arizona Republic there were 4,051 pending applications. She later provided a corrected number of about 2,000 applications after the city conducted "an extensive review of all applications submitted" and found the original number included ineligible and inactive applications.

Phoenix is allocating about half of its funds through its Human Services Department. The other half is funneling through Wildfire, a community action group focused on ending poverty.

Wildfire Executive Director Cynthia Zwick said the backlog is mostly due to people starting an application and not completing it with sufficient information or documents.

"It's a complicated process for the applicant, and it's a complicated process for the cases worker who's reviewing the applications," she said.

Zwick said the organization tries to communicate with applicants more frequently than what north-central Phoenix renter Ferralez experienced.

She said the federal government requires rental assistance programs to prioritize households making 50% or less of the area median income, which could explain why Ferralez's application has taken so long to process.

Zwick said Wildfire stopped accepting applications in June because, if all of the pending applications are approved for the average assistance award, the organization will be close to running out of funds.

"We didn't want to set up people to have an expectation that wasn't going to be realized," she said.

Wildfire is directing new applicants to the Phoenix Human Services Department instead.

Residents are encouraged to call on Mondays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to schedule an appointment to complete an application with the Human Services Department.

This leaves people who work during the day with limited ability to apply.

City spokesperson Stephanie Bracken said the city is evaluating when to reopen Wildfire's online portal but did not provide any additional plans to expand application access.

According to a memo sent to Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher on July 8, the Human Services Department plans to hire 20 temporary employees to speed up the disbursal.

'Nearly impossible to get any help'

Melissa Ferralez says the eviction moratorium and an understanding landlord have allowed her family to stay in their north-central Phoenix rental.

One Phoenix renter said she didn't learn about the rental assistance program until after Wildfire stopped accepting new applications. She said she's tried calling the city on Mondays but hasn't been able to get an appointment because they fill up so quickly.

"It's completely ridiculous. They tout all over the TV and radio that 'help is available,' but it's a lie. It's nearly impossible to get any help," she said.

Her landlord has threatened to evict her from her apartment near the Biltmore after the moratorium expires.

Meanwhile, Ferralez said she and her family have been able to stay in their home because of the eviction moratorium and because their landlord has been patient as they await assistance.

"I'm sure there are others that aren't that lucky that really, really, really need the money," she said.

Republic reporter Catherine Reagor contributed to this story.

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

Reach the reporter at jessica.boehm@gannett.com or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.