Landlord-Tenant Law and eviction notice on a desk.

Landlord-Tenant Law and eviction notice on a desk.

On March 24, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order to delay evictions of people affected by COVID-19, but for Tomasz Adamek, it came 10 days too late.

Tomasz and his mother, Ewa, were late on their March rent, and are being evicted. Ewa had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year and Hepatitis C this year and Tomasz has been out of work after suffering a broken back from a bad fall. He’s awaiting surgery to cement parts of his spine that have been leaking fluid causing him migraines and memory issues.

The two have been tenants at Ninety Degree Apartments for about 8 years, and moved to Phoenix from New York, where they immigrated to from Poland in 1989. Before COVID-19, Ewa would work between cancer treatments helping clean the houses of elderly people, despite being 70 years old herself.

“I am a workhorse,” she told Arizona Mirror through tears in her thick Polish accent. “I can work just a little and I am thankful I can work at all.”

Now, Ewa can’t do much of that work due to her own issues with her immune system and COVID-19 restrictions. About all she can do is help clean apartments for a friend who is letting her and Tomasz stay with them.

Ewa and Tomasz found themselves wrapped up in a complicated situation that some other tenants are finding themselves stuck in in the current COVID-19 landscape.

“The biggest misconception is that evictions aren’t going through,” Pima County Constable Joe Ferguson said. “It’s so much more complicated than that.”

Ducey’s order didn’t stop evictions, it just delayed them for certain people under certain circumstances.

“The Governor’s Executive Order, 2020-14, gives a constable, not a judge, the power to delay an eviction,” Maricopa County Justice Court spokesman Scott Davis explained to the Mirror. “This leads to a lot of confusion for tenants when they get the eviction note. They think they can simply go to court, say they were affected by COVID, and the eviction will be canceled. This is wrong.”

Constables have the authority to make a determination when serving what is called a writ of restitution. If a tenant brings up the issues with the constable of why they believe an eviction would negatively affect them due to COVID-19, Ducey’s executive order allows the constable to decide whether to delay the eviction.

Constables already had authority to delay evictions for a few days, but with the executive order, they now can delay evictions until July. However, constables are having their determinations challenged in court.

“Obviously, with the (executive order), everything is uncommon right now,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said that multiple constables in Pima County have received complaints by attorneys for not doing evictions, and in at least one case, attorneys are trying to hold a constable in contempt of court for giving a tenant a COVID-19 exemption.

Attorneys can challenge a constable’s determination not to evict a tenant, but a constable cannot challenge a judge’s determination to agree with a landlord’s attorney to evict a tenant.

In the case of the Adameks, the constable who served their writ of restitution gave them a COVID-19 delay, but when the landlord’s attorney challenged it, the judge ruled in favor of the landlord.

This was due in part to Tomasz not appearing at his hearing, something that happens frequently in eviction cases. A Morrison Institute study of Maricopa County Courts found that less than 20% of tenants facing eviction appear in court.

For Tomasz, this was in part due to what appears to be a filing error by the landlord’s attorneys: They put an incorrect email address for Tomasz on the court filing. As a result, Tomasz didn’t learn that he had a hearing until the day it was happening. It was too late for him to appear and a default judgment was entered against him.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking, but it’s really common,” Ferguson said.

And things often aren’t better for those who do appear in court: “If the tenants show up, it’s still the tenant facing off against the lawyer.”

The attorneys representing Ninety Degree Apartments did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ferguson suggests that those who find themselves in similar situations should start talking to their landlord right away.

The eviction process starts with the landlord-tenant relationship. Landlords are required to give tenants a five-day notice to pay what they owe. It’s during that time that tenants should bring up any possible COVID exemptions they may have.

“The landlord might then put the process on hold, or might continue with filing the eviction suit on the sixth day – it is the landlord’s choice here,” Davis, Maricopa Courts spokesman, said.

Many tenants have been using a document on the Arizona Courts website as a basis for their initial letter to their landlords. However, people like Tomasz and Ewa were wholly unaware of the resources available to them.

Judith McDaniel, a professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy, thinks that Ducey’s order could have done more to protect people like the Adameks.

Suspending all eviction hearings, removal of tenants except for emergencies and stopping utility disconnections are some ideas she thinks could’ve helped protect more vulnerable populations.

McDaniel was contacted by a veteran who was evicted after reporting gunfire by another tenant who had his utilities disconnected by his landlord in an attempt to get him to leave.

“There was already an eviction problem in Pima County before COVID-19 hit us,” McDaniel said. “It’s very, very upsetting – it’s not new, but it’s worse.”

Tomasz and his mother are continuing to look for housing and debating if they want to fight the eviction, even with looming medical bills that put them behind on rent in the first place.

“We are literally within the next three weeks going to be on the streets,” Tomasz said. “I don’t even know what to tell my doctor.”

Ewa and Tomasz were able to get a call from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego’s office, which told them to get in touch with social services. But when they called, they said they just ended up playing phone tag.

“We’re not trying to screw them, we will pay them what we owe them,” Adamek said of his old landlords, adding that they tried to offer payment plans and even a check from a local church, all of which were denied. “This is a pure nightmare.”

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