Tenant unions prepare for wave of evictions after executive order expires

By: - June 3, 2020 3:37 pm

Photo by Steve Rhodes | Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Phoenix resident Ronnie Wollenzier’s first day of unemployment couldn’t have started on a more ominous note. Her first day of not working as a nanny due to COVID-19 was March 13, which happened to land on a Friday. 

“It was kinda spooky,” Wollenzier said. 

Wollenzier had been working as a nanny for a family. But she had chronic asthma and the father of the family works as a chef at a nursing home. Wollenzier and the family had a long talk about her risk factors and mutually decided it would be best for her to stop working. 

Like many others who were suddenly out of work, she found herself trying to navigate unemployment and rental assistance programs, but got caught in long wait times and logistical challenges. She would be on hold for up to 40 minutes with unemployment and had to go back and forth to Staples for paperwork. 

Then April came around. 

Although she had spoken to her landlord about how her job disappeared because of the coronavirus, she was told that she would face eviction because she was unable to pay rent. 

Unlike many other tenants, Wollenzier feels she has advantages others don’t because she is college educated, has been able to push back and has had time to look into her rights. 

“It’s not cheap to file an appeal, either, thank god I got a stimulus check,” Wollenzier quipped.

Even so, it’s been a difficult battle, which led her to look for more support. 

She learned through Instagram about the Phoenix Tenant Union, a new organization that represents tenants. Tenant unions are made up of tenants that work collaboratively on a variety of issues the same as other unions. 

Building collective power

“We’ve gone through some drastic changes in the last ten years,” Zaira Livier said about the political climate of Pima County. 

Livier is the executive director of the People’s Defense Initiative, which has organized the Tucson Tenants Union. Initially, the group focused on sanctuary housing but the group saw housing becoming a larger issue in the area they then saw the union as a way to “build collective power as tenants and write policy that is pro-tenant.”

“This is just a collective of people that have one thing in common, that they are tenants,” Livier said. 

Tenant unions across the country have been emerging in reaction to the on-going housing crisis across the United States, and in the wake of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic have gained more attention. 

“It’s a great moment for coming up with alternatives and for a new way of thought,” Livier said.

Meanwhile, evictions are continuing to go through. In Pima County, the courts are gearing up for a major increase. 

Pima County Justice Court had delayed hearing eviction hearings due to COVID-19, but this month is set to hear a backlog of 500 eviction cases. 

From June 1 to June 11, one court is hearing nearly 50 cases a day. Nearly all of them are for inability to pay, said Pima County Constable Joe Ferguson. 

Additionally, Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order barring eviction of small businesses unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 expired Sunday. 

Meanwhile, Pima County Constable John Rademaker was held in contempt of court for delaying an eviction action, per another of Ducey’s executive orders that restricted evictions of renters, after a landlord’s law firm complained. 

“It was so out of line, I was just kind of dumbfounded by the whole thing,” Rademaker said. 

Eventually the Pima County Attorney filed a letter stating he was working within the confines of the executive order the contempt of court proceedings was dropped. 

Rademaker has been a constable since 2015 and said he has never experienced anything like it before and has done more than 100 evictions for the firm, Sipe and Landon, over the past five years. 

Wollenzier, who is still facing eviction in Phoenix, is dealing with a similar law firm in Phoenix: Hull, Holiday and Holiday, her landlord’s attorneys, run the website DoctorEvictor.com and also have represented infamous Tempe Landlord Tim Wright

In Phoenix, another tenant union that has been in operation since 1993 said it hasn’t seen a huge increase in evictions, but is hoping to see some political change when it comes to tenant rights. 

“It takes a special type of personality to want to engage in this type of self flagellation,” Ken Volk of Arizona Tenant Advocates said about the work of fighting for tenant rights. 

Arizona Tenant Advocates has been helping tenants break their leases and fight evictions for 27 years, and members of their Arizona Tenants Union can get additional benefits such as in-person meetings and get to be more involved with helping coordinate special actions the group aims to tackle. 

“We still don’t have a real change in consciousness yet,” Volk said, adding that his group spends most of its time trying to help tenants and does not have enough time to tackle larger issues that may be leading to the issues tenants face. 

“If you have some of that revitalized altruism, it might actually have an impact,” Volk said. 

A William E. Morrison Institute study of evictions in Maricopa County in 2018 to 2019 found that, of 1,097 eviction cases they observed, only 2 tenants had an attorney. 

“Everybody is in danger when we are impacted in that way,” Livier said, adding that traditional organizations that provide legal help and relief to tenants are already stretched thin during the pandemic. “This is really where we saw that we are only as strong as our weakest link.”

As Wollenzier is still fighting her eviction with the help of the Phoenix Tenants Union, groups like the Tucson Tenants Union and the Arizona Tenants Union are planning to prepare for the coming months as Ducey’s moratorium is set to expire in July. 

Even the constables are getting worried about what July will bring as once the moratorium is gone they’ll only be able to delay evictions by a day or two. 

“If they have COVID and I evict them, do they go to a shelter where they get 100 people sick or take a bus and get, God, how many people sick?” Ferguson said.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.