Housing crisis unveiled: The impact of expired federal funding on Tucson's vulnerable communities
Insights from University of Arizona students, presented last week at the annual Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop, illuminate the struggles of low-income households and propel policy changes for a better future.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, federally funded rental assistance helped many low-income individuals and families stay housed in Pima County. But the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, funding expired in October, leaving thousands of households vulnerable to housing insecurity and at risk for eviction, according to data collected by University of Arizona students.
The students presented their findings to over 100 community members, policymakers and nonprofit organizers at the UArizona Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop's seventh annual community forum, held at Habitat for Humanity on Dec. 12. The event marked the culmination of the students' semester-long efforts to gather data from low-income households across Tucson and Pima County.
The annual workshop is a student-driven project facilitated by the UArizona School of Sociology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences that focuses on the pressing issues surrounding evictions and poverty in Tucson. Since 2015, the workshop has partnered with the city of Tucson, Pima County and local nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity.
"These funds were always assumed to run out and Pima County did a good job extending them as long as possible, but we're facing a situation where the thousands of households that were able to stay housed through this program now lack additional support," said Brian Mayer, a professor of sociology and director of the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop.
Since 2020, Pima County, in collaboration with the city of Tucson, has allocated $88.6 million through ERAP to aid households affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily preventing eviction for thousands of Southern Arizona households. The expiration of those funds has left many at risk of homelessness.
"Although a statewide program through the Arizona Department of Economic Security can help households that are just now facing the threat of eviction, these 17,000 households in Southern Arizona are automatically ineligible for future help from the state," Mayer said. "Likely we will see many more evictions and people experiencing homelessness."
In the fall, the student cohort interviewed 272 participants comprised of recent ERAP funding recipients. The assessment included questions about housing and food insecurity, the impacts of ERAP, and mental health, employment and caregiving challenges.
The assessment is important in many ways, according to Bonnie Bazata, Ending Poverty Now program manager with Pima County Community Services.
"It gives us a lens into the community," Bazata said. "To see more in-depth what's happening for families who are low income, who are housing unstable, to see what the impact has been of our rent assistance, particularly through this pandemic.
"These three years of critical data Dr. Mayer's students have collected for us gives us a picture of what's happening in our community, and I am excited because I don't know any other city in the country that has this kind of partnership. It's giving us some critical information about … how we should be (responding)."
Making hard decisions to maintain stability
Households that previously were receiving ERAP funds from local government agencies are experiencing significant uncertainty – and not just regarding housing.
In Mayer's spring 2023 workshop, interviews revealed that when ERAP helped cover monthly rent, participants were better able to afford groceries, stay on top of bills and, in some cases, start thinking about buying a home. "That same pool of people was hopeful — about 60% had short-term plans to buy a home," Mayer said.
Because that group no longer receives ERAP funds, it has become difficult to balance the cost of utilities and groceries with the burden of rent. Almost all households receiving ERAP funds (91%) saw their rent go up in the last year, with an average increase of $220 per month. At the same time, most households reported no increase in income.
Students said participants reported making difficult choices to stay in their homes.
"We see some people donating plasma in order to get a meal, which I think is very extreme," student Nadine Chau said. "They shouldn't have to go to those lengths just to be able to have food on their plate. A lot of people said they sell their personal belongings and pawn off personal items."
Forty percent of households receiving ERAP funds were extremely food insecure. They reported regularly cutting the size of meals, skipping meals entirely and eating less-healthful foods. Of the households with children at home, 70% reported some level of food insecurity.
"This is the highest level of food insecurity we have observed in eight years of the poverty workshop," Mayer said.
In addition to high rent and rising food costs, participants — predominantly single mothers — also cited childcare as a struggle to find and pay for, which affected their ability to pay rent.
Practical experience and real-life challenges
During the fall semester, 38 students immersed themselves in the ongoing struggle of Tucsonans. The workshop gave the students perspective. One student, Lauren Taylor, used her growing knowledge to write an op-ed, published in The Arizona Daily Star.
Students also learned about the "benefits cliff," which refers to the sudden and often unexpected decrease in public benefits that can occur with a small increase in earnings.
Students learned in detail about participants and their situations, said Erin Heinz, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Sociology who co-taught the course with Mayer.
"That's what really gets them thinking about all these interconnected factors," Heinz said.
Student Faith Young said she didn't realize the severity of the housing issues.
"I interviewed people and saw what they had to go through to make sure their kids could eat, or so they weren't living in their cars." Young said.
Shaping future policy with research
In early December, the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a set of policy actions related to building prosperity in Tucson and Pima County that include affordable housing. These position statements include data and research from the poverty workshop.
Sophomore Andrew Pongrátz, a first-year research assistant and poverty policy research fellow, researched how to increase homeownership, which he said is important for several reasons.
"It creates financial stability," Pongrátz said. "People feel secure in their homes, it makes neighborhoods more politically active, and people care more about their neighborhoods when they own a home there."
Mayer said this kind of undergraduate research and engagement with the community is important.
"We're happy to be able to use the resources we have at the university, to allow our undergraduates to collect these data and learn something about the challenges associated with poverty, and hopefully inspire them to go on and become leaders in this area," Mayer said.
Student Nolan Ferrell said he sees a link between the workshop and his planned career in law enforcement.
In that line of work, he said, "You have to know the community you are serving and understand the issues and trials the people you are trying to protect and serve are experiencing. That way, you can empathize and build connections."
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