SALT LAKE CITY — Melanie Rangel spent the winter holidays darting around her West Jordan kitchen, baking fresh loaves of pumpkin and banana bread adorned with walnuts or chocolate chips.
But she didn't bake the treats for the sake of tradition, or to pass the time.
Rangel's family of six dipped into a pool of $20 million in state rental assistance money last year when her husband's construction jobs came to a halt. As the rental fund dwindled, she was among the applicants who sought out alternatives to cover the bills late last year.
The state ultimately dug up more federal relief money for nonprofits to parcel out, including $7 million for January. But not before Rangel began taking online orders for her homemade treats and delivering them around the Salt Lake Valley.
Nationally, up to 40 million renters — roughly the equivalent population of California — are at risk of eviction, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In Utah, 1 in 3 adults behind on rent or mortgage payments believe they'll be evicted or foreclosed in the next two months, compared to 35% nationally, according to December survey results from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rangel is one of many who are behind on rent and have gotten creative as additional federal relief money — including $200 million for housing assistance — makes its way to Utah. Others are peddling different foods or services like tutoring and house cleaning.
"It's been tough, but we've been slowly just gathering what we can so we can just stay here," Rangel said. "I was just tired of being scared of how we're going to pay our bills."
Congress in December extended a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of January, protecting certain tenants who assert in writing that their livelihoods were harmed by the pandemic.
While the moratorium prevents them from getting kicked out of their homes for nonpayment, it doesn't preclude evictions based on other reasons. It also doesn't stop property owners from filing a lawsuit to evict someone. It simply puts the legal process on hold, allowing it to resume after the moratorium lifts.
Rangel counts her family as lucky. She collects a small disability check each month, but it's not enough to cover their bills. Their landlord has been working with them as they catch up on two late payments for the house they rent for $1,400 a month.
"He's like, 'Well, how's the work going with your husband?'" Rangel said. "I just told him I resorted to selling bread and he just said, 'You know what? How about I help you and just pay your water bill this month for you?' He's just been amazing."
I was just tired of being scared of how we're going to pay our bills.
Evictions still happen
Not all landlords or property companies have made such allowances, said Tara Rollins, the executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.
"There is a good portion of people that are still being evicted for nonpayment," Rollins said, including many who don't know about the federal moratorium, so they're not raising it as a defense in court.
Many Utahns have struggled in the housing crunch of recent years to hold onto their homes, even before the pandemic cost many their jobs or kept them home from work, Rollins said. Some who now don't have the cash to make rent are putting it on their credit cards.
Her organization is preparing a report on the pandemic's effects on renters. They surveyed nearly 600 of those who received the relief money.
While a majority of those renters managed to remain in their homes, the report identified 50 people in Salt Lake County shelters who were renting just prior to arriving at the shelters.
Landlords and property companies can apply on a tenant's behalf for the relief money, yet some who do so are evicting those tenants anyway under the thinking they will remain out of work for months to come, Rollins said. Rangel said her landlord didn't have success in applying for the program.
The Utah Apartment Association, which represents rental property owners, is urging landlords to file eviction cases against tenants who aren't responding to attempts to get in touch about missed payments.
"Sometimes they have to be woken up, and while we don't want to do any eviction, a three-day notice and filing an eviction wakes a lot of people up," said Paul Smith, the association's executive director.
Smith said eviction filings last year ticked down more than 40% in Utah from a year earlier, standing at about 4,800. But Smith doesn't attribute the decline to the moratorium. Rather, he attributes it to Utah's relatively low unemployment rate — 4.3% for November — combined with the federal assistance.
Roughly 10% of nearly 480,000 renters in Utah reported no confidence that they can pay next month's rent, the census survey found.
Eviction Lab, a website run by researchers at Princeton University, ranks states by their efforts to help protect renters from eviction.
Sometimes they have to be woken up, and while we don't want to do any eviction, a three-day notice and filing an eviction wakes a lot of people up.
–Paul Smith, Utah Apartment Association
The Beehive State has handed out rental assistance of up to $1,500 per month to renters who have lost income and placed a six-week moratorium for evictions tied to nonpayment in the spring, but Utah rates among the lowest for help.
"Without further action and supportive measures, Utah could see a surge of evictions during and immediately following the pandemic," the Eviction Lab review says.
Minnesota ranked highest because it is barring landlords from taking tenants with COVID-19 hardships to court, and it suspending hearings in existing eviction cases.
Roughly half the $20 million in rent relief money last year was used to pay out applications from tenants, while the other half went to landlords who applied on behalf of their renters, said Department of Workforce Services spokeswoman Christina Davis.
In all, the department filled roughly 12,000 applications last year, although some renters applied multiple times, and some landlords covered several households in a single application.
How to get help
Rent-help money is available through the state's website, rentrelief.utah.gov or Utah Community Action at utahca.org. Those facing eviction can also get free help from People's Legal Aid, plautah.org, or 801-477-6975.