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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are divided on whether they believe the state should halt evictions to protect more renters from losing their housing in the pandemic, but many think it's a good idea.
Just under half — 47% — believe the state should have a moratorium, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. A smaller share of 24% oppose a moratorium, while slightly more — 29% — aren't sure.
Gov. Spencer Cox isn't planning on bringing back the moratorium, but he does want to see a new round of federal rent relief money make its way to Utahns in need, he told reporters Friday.
"I don't think that the state eviction moratorium renewal is on the table, but all of that being said, we have a tremendous amount of funding available to the state to help with those families that that are struggling," said Cox, a Republican. He pointed people to resources through coronavirus.utah.gov.
The federal government has extended certain protections for renters, but Utah's six-week moratorium ended in May at the direction of then-Gov. Gary Herbert. And evictions still continue to take place in the Beehive State, whether tenants are simply leaving after finding a notice at the door or appearing in court for a formal eviction proceeding.
Housing advocates contend the federal measures are failing to shield large swaths of Utah's renters from eviction, making them vulnerable to the virus, should they need to stay with others, in shelters or at encampments.
"Our concern is if the programs don't work, we don't have a lot of time for renters to find other options," June Hiatt with Utah Renters Together said at a forum held last year as the statewide pause on evictions expired.
But others, including the influential Utah Apartment Association, have noted landlords have their own financial obligations and say Utah's low unemployment rate is helping renters stay put in many of the state's roughly 300,000 rental units.
"Most people are employed and able to pay rent," said Paul Smith, the executive director of the association, which represents landlords. "For those that aren't, rental assistance is available. So there's no excuse to not pay rent and to make the landlord responsible for the crisis."
A lag in $213 million in federal rental assistance to Utah has meant that many renters haven't yet connected to the relief money this year, but Smith said landlords are being patient as a network of nonprofit groups is working with the state to cover rent and utilities.
More than $20 million in federal help last year helped stave off evictions in Utah, which were down by 40% for last year, Smith said. But advocates fear renters, facing a financial cliff, will be booted from their homes when the federal protections expire.
The poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen shows Democrats in Utah view a moratorium more favorably than Republicans — 68% of Democrats compared to 38% of Republicans, and 47% for those of other political affiliations. The survey of 1,000 registered Utah voters took place Feb. 10-16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Slightly more women than men are supportive of a moratorium, but women were also more likely to indicate they haven't arrived at a conclusion yet, the poll shows.
There were also differences among those of separate faiths. Latter-day Saint Utahns were the least likely to favor a moratorium, followed by those of other faiths. A majority of nonreligious Utahns, however, approved.
In Washington, D.C., Democratic President Joe Biden's administration has extended a hold on evictions and foreclosures for properties with federally backed mortgages through June.
In an effort to stave off further spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also allowing renters to raise health concerns as a defense if they're facing eviction due to financial hardship tied to COVID-19. But the CDC action simply pauses the legal process instead of blocking it altogether.
Cox said the state will have to work hard to ensure that families and others who are out of work or have higher expenses because of the virus can connect to the help.
"That's where we're going to be focusing our efforts, is making sure that we align the people that are struggling with that, so there won't be any evictions because they're meeting their obligations, with the assistance of the state," Cox said.
A pending proposal at the Utah Legislature seeks to further help renters so they don't wind up with unexpected bills. It would require landlords to make clear from the outset the fees renters will be on the hook for. HB68 awaits a vote in the state Senate.
Other efforts have stalled. A plan from legal advocates to have legal materials translated into other languages that tenants better understand has met pushback from the Utah Apartment Association, which contends contracts must be in English to be enforceable under Utah law.