What Is the Path Forward? Mayor & Council Candidate Forum Focuses on Housing & Gentrification

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Where do the mayoral candidates stand on affordable housing, low-income housing, and homelessness?

I think that’s a great question, and I hope to find the answers at the upcoming Mayor and Ward 1 City Council Candidate Forum on Saturday, June 22.  The event will be held at El Rio Center, from 12 noon – 2:30 p.m. and will moderated by Nancy Montoya from Arizona Public Media. According to the Blog for Arizona Calendar, the three Democrats running for Mayor and the four running for Romero’s Ward 1 seat are expected to participate.

What is the state of housing in Arizona?

Arizona’s Housing Crisis: Has the Legislature Done Its Part?

As rents and evictions increase, housing has become a huge issue across Arizona. Housing– like prison reform and charter school reform– got a lot of lip service in the Arizona Legislature in 2019. During the session, there were many opportunities to tackle the housing crisis in a meaningful way, but those bills died.

On a high note, the Legislature allocated $10 million for the Housing Trust Fund in the FY2020 budget, which begins in a few weeks. The Housing Trust Fund used to be $40 million per year until the Tea Party Reign of Terror swept the funds and left only ~$2.5 million in it. (Of course, back then, tax cuts were far more important than helping people keep roofs over their heads.)

Ten million in the Housing Trust Fund is better than $2.5 million, but the Legislature didn’t pass ANY of the other housing-related bills in 2019. Several housing bills passed the Senate with bipartisan support and passed through two of my committees– Health and Human Services and Ways and Means– on bipartisan votes. Unfortunately, these bills were stopped by the House Appropriations Committee (chaired by Rep. Regina Cobb), the infamous House Rules Committee (chaired by Rep. Anthony Kern), or the House Republican leadership (Speaker Rusty Bowers, Majority Leader Warren Petersen, Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, and Whip Becky Nutt).

On another high note, for the second year in a row, the Legislature stopped a low-income housing tax credit bill for developers. This is one of those bills that sounds good on the surface but would cost the state $90-100 million per year in lost tax revenue in future years. Tax cuts and tax credits are bad for the state’s general fund because– besides reducing future income unnecessarily– once the Legislature passes tax giveaways, it takes a two-thirds vote to repeal them. (Ironically, this tax credit bill is featured in this local news story.)

On a low note, the Legislature passed and Governor Doug Ducey signed into law HB2358, which makes it easier for landlords to evict tenants– even if the tenants have made a partial rent payment. In the Arizona Senate, HB2358 passed on a party line vote with all Democrats voting against it. In the House, it passed 45-15, with 14 Democrats– nearly half of the caucus– joining the Republicans. (To learn more about the Legislature’s housing efforts in 2019, go here. To find out how your Legislator voted on HB2358, go to azleg.gov and put that bill number in the search box.)

What Is the Scope of the Problem?

To get an idea of the scope of the affordable housing problem in Pima County, here is an excerpt from Housing experts discuss causes of high eviction rates, which covers a March 2019 panel discussion on housing.

“Between 2015 and 2018, more than 13,000 Pima County renters were faced with an eviction. At a forum,…housing and community leaders … share[d] insights on the housing system. They argue that a large factor of the high eviction rate is laws currently in place, and not so much a fault of the individual tenant.

“There are 940,000 tenants in Arizona, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Roughly 215,000 of them are considered “extremely low-income” which is classified as a family of four living on $24,000 per year. The income required to afford a two-bedroom rental at fair market value is $38,000 per year.

“The NLIHC reports that for those 215,000 people in Arizona who need affordable rental housing, there are only 55,000 affordable rental units available. Kim Fitch of Nicolosi & Fitch property management company said

…there were 1,223 new apartment units built in Pima County this year, and only three percent of them (40 units) were designated affordable housing.

“In addition, 54 percent of those units are student housing, which are typically high-density apartment buildings with expensive monthly rates marketed exclusively to college students.

“The minimum wage in Arizona is $10.50 per hour. A person with that wage must work 56 hours every week to afford a modest one bedroom home at fair market value. In Tucson, the average wage required to secure housing is $16.42.

“As a result, renters end up paying more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on housing. With most of their income dedicated to rent and utilities, and many renters living paycheck to paycheck, just one interrupted work week is enough to throw someone into housing instability…

House Bill 2358, which is currently pending in the Arizona Senate, would allow a landlord to evict a tenant for not paying rent in full even if a portion of the rent is covered on time by a third-party assistance entity such as any of the organizations present at the forum.

“Butler said it could cost $30,000 annually to house a homeless family, but it could cost just $2,000 to provide rental assistance to a family that is about to be evicted, and allow them to stay in their home. 

“’In addition, job loss, reshuffling children to new schools, chronic mental and physical health issues, just this ripple effect that begins to happen once you’ve entered into the eviction cycle,’ Butler said.

“She sees the eviction problem as predictable. With the use of data analysis, signs of a looming eviction can be identified two to three years in advance through falling credit scores and rising debts.”

What Is the Path Forward?

Shortages in affordable and low-income housing and pervasive homelessness are complicated problems with many facets. They require long-term, comprehensive solutions– not snap judgments, soundbites, or one-size-fits-all ideas from lobbyists. Current governmental policies seem to focus on solving the current problems– rather than looking down the road at preventing homelessness, evictions, and shortages in affordable and low-income housing. Other public policies– like making it easier for landlords to evict people and encouraging construction of expensive student housing– ignore the affordable housing crisis.

The excerpt above reports that affordable rental units available for only 26 percent of Arizonans in need. It also says that only three percent (40) of the 1223 apartment units built in Pima County this year would be considered “affordable housing.” What’s wrong with this picture?

What strategies could we undertake to prevent shortages in affordable and low-income housing, evictions, and homelessness? Providing emergency rent support to help people bridge a financial rough patch is a great way to stem evictions and homelessness, but we should be looking upstream for prevention-based solutions to these downstream problems. For example, raising wages; providing good-paying local jobs; providing childcare subsidies to low-income families; fully funding P-20 education; and offering affordable higher education and occupational certifications would go a long way to solving the affordable housing crisis. It’s time to focus on prevention.

Here are a few related articles about evictions and housing in Pima County.

Pima County says there is an eviction problem

Housing experts discuss causes of high eviction rates

JUSTICE COURT: Most Tucson tenants no-shows at rapid-fire eviction hearings

SOLUTIONS: More affordable housing, right to legal counsel could ease Tucson’s eviction problem

EVICTIONS: Low-income housing crisis takes toll on Tucson renters 

Pima County accepts $575,000 grant to prevent evictions

Local organization works to help those facing eviction

Map: A look at where evictions are filed in Pima County

Curbing evictions in Pima County

Eviction and Rehousing Assistance in Pima County

Eviction Prevention Assistance

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