US states could face sharp rise in evictions as COVID reprieve comes to an end

Cardboard boxes are labelled “Stacey’s things”, family messages are written on the noticeboard on the fridge, cat food laid out neatly in the corner.

In the darkness, the curtains drawn against the desert heat outside, a maintenance man is drilling out the lock on the bedroom door.

We are at the scene of an eviction in an apartment complex in Phoenix in Arizona. It is one of six evictions in this one apartment block on the same day.

Junior Harry lost his job and says no one is hiring in Phoenix
Image:Junior Harry lost his job and says no one is hiring in Phoenix

In Arizona, evictions are carried out by constables, law enforcement officers who are elected voters and carry out orders of the county courts.

As the light from the two constables’ torches pierce the darkness inside the apartment, it is clear no one is at home. If the occupants do return, they will find the locks have been changed.

The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the issue of evictions across the United States. Increasing numbers of people who have lost their jobs in the economic fallout are struggling to pay living costs.

In Arizona, people facing eviction can apply for a delay if they can show have been impacted by COVID-19. But those protections are due to expire at the end of the month, raising the possibility of a surge in evictions.

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Mike Branham, the presiding constable in Maricopa County which includes Phoenix, said: “People should worry about the people who have lost work and not been able to make their rent payments but everybody else has to understand the other side to that – that there’s a property owner somewhere that has to make a mortgage payment.

“We try to balance the needs of the public health pandemic with the need for people to be safe and secure in their homes or the ownership of property. There are no winners in an eviction case.”

At most of the evictions we witness with Mike Branham and veteran constable Lennie McCloskey, the occupants are not home. Many are empty of any possessions.

Marcelina Fuentes
Image:Marcelina Fuentes has managed to negotiate a stay with her landlord after losing her job because of the pandemic
Marcelina Fuentes
Image:Ms Fuentes is home-schooling her two daughters

Junior Harry, a refugee from Liberia, tells them he has filed paperwork requesting a delay. The constables give him two days to provide proof before returning to evict him.

He said: “Everywhere I go nobody’s hiring, I lost my job, I’m having problems paying my rent and now look at what’s happened. It’s crazy, man.”

At another Phoenix apartment complex, Mr McCloskey again finds the potential evictees have left.

A few doors down, Marcelina Fuentes has negotiated some breathing space with the landlord after losing her job in the pandemic.

Community centre manager Genero Ruiz says families don't know how they will cope with the lack of work
Image:Community centre manager Genero Ruiz says families don’t know how they will cope with the lack of work

She home-schools nine-year-old Amirah and seven-year-old Aleah in the family’s 400 sq ft studio.

She said: “It has been stressful. With me not having an income it has been hard.

“There are certain things my children want, certain things they need, winter is coming, they need clothing. It is just a lot. It has been crazy.”

She is positive though: “We can get through it. I’m a strong mom.”

Mr McCloskey says there are 'no winners' in an eviction case
Image:Mr McCloskey says there are ‘no winners’ in an eviction case

But there is real concern about the impact of a prolonged economic slump and the possibility of a new wave of the virus.

“Families who were living pay cheque to pay cheque are now saying ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get by a couple of months from now’,” said Genero Ruiz.

Tenants in Arizona can apply for a stay of eviction if they have been affected by COVID-19
Image:Tenants in Arizona can apply for a stay of eviction if they have been affected by COVID-19

He is manager of a community centre run by the charity Chicanos por la Causa in one of the poorest and hardest hit areas of Phoenix.

The centre has set up a food bank and temporary classroom for children unable to be home-schooled in the pandemic.

“The tough times are still to come for a lot of families, and they’re dreading it,” said Mr Ruiz.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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