SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leaders halted many evictions following COVID-19 lockdowns earlier this year, but Gov. Gary Herbert removed that protection in May.
Although many pandemic restrictions were lifted to reopen the economy then, and Utah’s unemployment rate is better than many other states, it hasn’t erased the reality that many Utahns could go through the eviction process in the coming weeks and months, especially as experts warn certain industries in Utah and the U.S. could be in trouble without additional financial help.
At the same time, the additional $600 per week unemployment benefits offered from the U.S.’s coronavirus relief bill ended on Aug. 1. President Donald Trump has authorized an executive order to extend additional unemployment relief, which offers $400 per week.
The nonpartisan nonprofit Aspen Institute issued an in-depth report last week that stated some 30 million to 40 million Americans are at risk for eviction in the coming months due to economic hardships that, in many cases, already existed before the pandemic began. That includes a range of 46,000 to 83,000 households in Utah, or between 105,000 to 190,000 Utahns.
As the economic situation of the pandemic continues to play out, Utah housing experts gathered Tuesday for a video teleconference forum hosted by Salt Lake City officials to address what Utahns facing the possibility of evictions can do to avoid the headaches and burdens of the eviction process.
A rising risk for evictions
The $2.2 trillion federal relief package plus other economic and community factors helped lower the number of evictions typically seen, said Paul Smith, director of the Utah Apartment Association. After the pandemic hit, the percentage of people paying rent in Utah remained high and, thus, evictions were low.
“We are top in the country in rent collection; most people have more than enough money from unemployment, from the federal stimulus, from their personal savings, from their ability to get a second job, from friends and family, from communities and churches, that we have 49% less evictions than normal,” Smith said. “Some people would argue that the philosophy of putting money into the hands of the people who needed it has worked incredibly.”
But that doesn’t take into account what’s looming. Many federal provisions from the federal aid bill are running out, and talks in Washington about a second package stalled without a deal before Congress’s August recess.
With that, there are fears of a nationwide housing crisis.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, 46,653 Utah households, or about 8.4% of total households surveyed between July 16 and July 21, said they were unable to pay their July rent on time. It’s high but much lower than the national average, which was about 18.3% of renters across the country.
Nearly two-thirds of Utah respondents who couldn’t make payment on time said they or a household member experienced loss of household income, and only 19% were currently employed. Finding additional money to pay for rent can be difficult, said Jeff Daybell, director of the Peoples Legal Aid Society. That's mainly due to the job sectors hit hardest by the pandemic.
"It's difficult to get additional jobs. We've seen a lot of the additional jobs would be in the tourism or in the health, foods and services industries, which has been really impacted by COVID," he said.
A staggering number — about 80% in total — of those who reported they couldn’t make a payment reported being in a household of at least two people, including close to 46% reporting that they had children living in the household.
While nearly half of those surveyed said they couldn’t make payments reported having household incomes less than $25,000, about 27% — or 12,615 in total — reported a household income between $75,000 and $99,000. That was larger than the three income brackets between those two income figures combined.
The available data also seemed to indicate that racial minorities were more likely to be disproportionately affected by impending financial issues, although the data was less complete in this section. According to the Census Bureau, 7.7% of white respondents said they were not able to pay July rent on time compared to the total number of white respondents that answered "yes or no." That’s compared to 14.5% for Hispanic or Latino respondents and 68.8% of Asian respondents.
According to state demographic data, about 90% of Utah is white; however, among respondents that said they weren’t able to make rent payment on time, nearly 46% were classified as minorities.
In all, 35% said they used regular pre-pandemic income sources within the week they reported, while more than half said they used money from family and friends to meet spending needs in that past week.
Collecting a survey of Utah renters for a July 29 report, global advisory firm Stout estimates that nearly 30% of Utah renters wouldn’t be able to pay for rent and would be at risk for eviction. It estimated 83,000 households, and nearly 30% of all renter households in the state would be at risk of failing to pay rent. It also estimates the potential of 56,000 total eviction filings in Utah over the next four months.
A representative of Stout was among 10 authors of a wider study published Friday by the Aspen Institute. The report estimated 46,000 to 83,000 households were at risk of eviction in Utah, which equates to 15-30% of households.
The Aspen Institute report also stated 29-43% of households nationwide are at risk for eviction, stating that 12.6 million to 17.3 million households, or 28.9 to 39.8 million people, were at risk of eviction in the near future.
“Current projections indicate that America is facing an urgent and unprecedented eviction crisis,” the authors of the Aspen Institute report wrote.
Trump's order on housing
The federal relief package included a temporary moratorium on evictions for some renters under certain conditions, but that moratorium has already expired. Trump didn't just extend the unemployment benefits, he also extended the federal order on housing.
However, experts point out it didn't extend the pause on evictions.
"It basically directs government agencies to find funding, then find programs to help renters," Smith said.
So, what should you do if you find yourself facing eviction?
Dealing with eviction
Smith explained evictions start with a three-day notice from a landlord that includes an amount owed and a three-day, or three business-day timeframe to make that payment. On the fourth day, the case is submitted to the court system. Action takes about three weeks, and courts will likely order that a tenant pay triple rent or damages.
“If it takes a month to get you out and your rent was $2,000, you’ll actually owe $6,000,” Smith said.
He, along with other experts, said people should not wait for the third day after an eviction notice was issued or when it is in the court system to make a move. Instead, experts say people should start by calling 2-1-1 — or going online to the 2-1-1 website — to seek out housing assistance.
“On Day 1, when you get a notice, start making phone calls. Dial 2-1-1 and ask for assistance on rent or mediation,” said Tara Rollins, director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “You really need to have a third party help you with this. If you feel confident, reach out to the landlord and start discussing ways you can come current on your rent.”
Smith added there is about $26 million in rental assistance available in Utah with federal, state and other aid pooled together, but only about $500,000 has been used to this point.
The pandemic didn’t change the threat of evictions for many people, said Heather Lester, landlord-tenant mediator for Utah Community Action.
“People end leases, tenants abandon leases, vacates were happening, nuisances were happening. These things were happening, and it’s hard now because (of) the shock value: ‘How could this happen during a pandemic?’” she said.
For example, one individual facing eviction said it came after their landlord sold a Salt Lake City property and the new owner forced all the residents to leave. Rollins said she’s aware of similar instances in nearby Utah cities.
Smith advised residents to sign long-term leases if they can, since new property owners are required to honor the existing lease. Daybell said people facing eviction for this reason usually have 15 to 30 days advance notice.
He also recommended people should also reach out to the landlord or to other places for help early and not weeks after the eviction notice is issued.
“One of the things we see is people will get an eviction notice and not do anything about it until Day 28 or 29. At that point, there’s not a lot of resources we can put behind you to help find a different place to stay,” he said.
Others dealing with falling behind payments
Angela Price, program policy manager for Salt Lake City, mentioned those who pay mortgages should go through a similar process. That includes landlords who are collecting rent.
“We urge landlords to contact their lenders to see if there’s flexibility,” she said. “If you’re able to pay your rent; if you’re not able to pay your mortgage — whether you own your home, you’re renting your home, maybe you have a duplex and you’re renting the basement — reach out to your lender early (and) often. Communicate that you’re not able to pay your rent or mortgage and see what assistance is available to you.
“Don’t wait until your home is being foreclosed on or you have a three-day pay or vacate (notice) on your door,” she added.