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New AZ housing head says it's 'time to listen' to advocates, leverage new funds

Posted at 7:04 PM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-07 22:17:54-04

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Housing's new leader, Tom Simplot is a familiar face to Phoenicians.

Simplot, who served on the Phoenix City Council from 2003-2013, represented District 4 which includes parts of Central and West Phoenix. He told ABC15 that during his time on the Council housing was a top priority citing his work with a non-profit to build housing for what was a growing unsheltered population near the VA Hospital on Indian School near 7th Street.

"(It was) the very first ground-up new build permanent supportive housing community, right in that area, to serve in service, those who were living on the street, in that neighborhood, and it filled immediately," he said.

Simplot also served as President of the Arizona Multi-Housing Association (AMA), a lobbying group that represents apartments and landlords, before his most recent position with the National Endowment for the Arts in the Trump Administration.

Now he's been tapped by Governor Doug Ducey to guide the department during a time the state is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, increasing homelessness, and a pandemic.

Arizona counted 10,979 people experiencing homelessness in the 2020 Point in Time Homeless Count. More than half of them were unsheltered. Those numbers include Maricopa County where 7,419 people were experiencing homelessness. Of those 3,767 were unsheltered.

Simplot's arrival coincides with hundreds of millions of federal coronavirus relief funds coming into the state.

Arizona is set to receive $229 million of the second round of Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds from the American Rescue plan, according to numbers released by the U.S. Treasury on Friday.
That amount is in addition to the $289 million in ERA funds the state already received in February for a program being run by the state's Department of Economic Security.

Other Rescue Plan money includes $196 million in homeowner assistance funds and $21 million for homelessness and affordable housing, according to a Wednesday announcement from Ducey's office.

Simplot said it's important that the people who work to increase affordable housing and decrease homelessness, "all participate in that process of where that money should be prioritized."

"It's time to listen," he said. "It's time to listen to our mayors, our members of the city council our county supervisors. It's time to listen to the homeless, service, and care providers. It's time to listen to our mental health providers to hear what is happening in their various lanes of interest. And then to be able to leverage the money that is coming down the pike with what we have to work with already."

He said he had already spoken to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, and other officials around the state.

But some critics question past work he did while leading the AMA. The group pushed state legislation that banned a tool some cities use to try and create more affordable housing called inclusionary zoning. It is a practice in which cities can make the approval of new developments contingent on the project including some affordable housing units.

He said, "There are a lot of different ways to tackle this issue. My hope is, is that we look at all of the options in the tools in the tool chest to see what actually works for Arizona." He went on to say, "inclusionary zoning isn't the magic ticket that suddenly solves these issues."

One thing is for sure, there are lots of issues and Simplot says he is ready to take them on.

"We just, we have so much work to do. And we don't have any time to waste," he said.