SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's protections for renters are weaker than in most states, but a proposal at the state Legislature could help give them a leg up, according to a new analysis from law students at the University of Utah.
The Beehive State doesn't require landlords to disclose all the fees tenants must cover on top of rent. Rep. Marsha Judkins is now seeking to change that so tenants don't wind up with unexpected bills by sponsoring HB68.
"It's a consumer protection bill, like truth in advertising, truth in lending," the Provo Republican said. "You need to know what the cost is going to be before money changes hands."
Such a measure is one step Utah could take to help renters facing a housing crunch that makes it more difficult for them to negotiate lease terms, the law students' report notes.
The consequences for Utahns evicted from their homes are "among the nation's harshest and most economically punishing," reads the report commissioned by the nonprofit People's Legal Aid, which represents Utah tenants in court at no cost. "People evicted in Utah typically pay triple damages to their landlord, along with a long list of compounding fines and fees."
Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association representing rental property owners, challenged the report's conclusions.
"It's opinion," he said of the analysis. "I hope that the takeaway is that while this report wants to slam landlords and Utah law as landlord friendly and anti-tenant, our laws are balanced. They're fair."
His association has worked with lawmakers and others to help establish certain protections for renters, he said, and even proposed the 10% cap on late fees that Judkins' bill would impose.
A single eviction case can prevent a person from securing an apartment in the future, the report noted, but leases in Utah are largely unregulated.
Unlike neighboring Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada, Utah hasn't banned rental agreements from requiring tenants to give up certain rights or legal remedies under the state's fair housing law. And it can be expensive or time-consuming to go to court in order to challenge leases that conflict with the law.
With a judge's order, landlords can collect three times the money owed for late payments as well as attorney costs, in addition to three times the daily rent for each day a person remains at a property after eviction. It means a renter who can't cover a $1,000 monthly payment could wind up owing $3,500.
The tripling of fees, known as treble damages, generally is reserved in civil cases for when one party willfully wrongs the other, the report noted. But in Utah they're awarded regardless of why rent is late or missing.
Smith said tenants can also obtain treble damages, so the prospect deters both parties from straying from terms of the lease. He pushed back against the notion that many leases go against Utah's laws, saying judges would throw out those contracts.
And he noted Utah's law remains in line with nationally adopted standards from the 1950s, and although more politically liberal states in the American West have added laws with tenants in mind, Utah's laws look more like those in Montana and Wyoming.
Property owners also can recoup attorney fees from tenants and unpaid costs in the form of garnished wages or liens that can be used to seize tenants' property for auction.
And tenants may not understand all they've signed on for. It can be hard for someone without expertise in housing law to decipher the the legal jargon in lease agreements.
Jeff Daybell, the executive director a People's Legal Aid, said his group requested the report to get an unbiased sense of the legal landscape for Utah tenants and where the state stands in the national picture. He said the report revealed a "glaring" uneven playing field for renters and landlords.
Angela McGuire, assistant director at People's Legal Aid, noted the pandemic has worsened challenges many renters face. And although federal evictions moratoriums are keeping many in their homes, it's not clear how many will face a financial cliff when those protections eventually end.
Rebalancing renters' rights and landlords' responsibilities in Utah will require a long-term organized effort. Landlords and property managers are powerful and organized. Renters are not.
–University of Utah law student report
McGuire said she's hopeful the report will help the public, renters and Utah's leaders better understand the laws shaping the reality for the state's renters.
The law students working with the law school's justice lab interviewed Daybell's group, other organizations helping renters and attorneys working on eviction and debt collection cases.
"Rebalancing renters' rights and landlords' responsibilities in Utah will require a long-term organized effort," the report says. "Landlords and property managers are powerful and organized. Renters are not."
It recommended measures like Judkins' plus statewide prohibitions on lease terms that go against fair housing law and requirements for tenants to cover the property owners' attorney fees, and limits on late fees.
Although Utah's bill to bring hidden fees into the open doesn't carry penalties for landlords or open them up to legal action, the Utah legislative proposal would codify best practices.
HB68 won approval from the Utah House of Representatives but it hasn't been scheduled for a Senate hearing, a delay Judkins called "disappointing" after a prior version of the bill died without a final vote in the final hours of the 2020 Legislature.
After the bill stalled last year, Judkins removed part of the proposal that created a legal cause of action for tenants to bring a landlord to small claims court to recoup application fees or a deposit if they're surprised by extra costs when the time comes to sign the lease.
"We had to make changes in the bill to get some support, and it took some of the teeth out of the bill — well, all the teeth out of the bill — but ... it codifies what these best practices are, which I think is important," Judkins said. "There are so many good landlords. Those good landlords are already doing this."