SALT LAKE CITY — As Congress scrambles in an eleventh-hour push to extend the nationwide eviction moratorium set to expire Saturday, billions already approved for housing aid across the country — including about $150 million in Utah — remain untouched.
Even before President Joe Biden's administration extended the moratorium from June 30 to July 31, Utah housing advocates and state officials embarked on a push to get over $180 million in available rental assistance in the hands of struggling Utahns.
As of Friday, the day before the moratorium expiration, Utah still had about $150 million available in emergency rental assistance available to distribute, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
So while millions have been distributed, according to state officials, there's still plenty to go around for strapped renters.
"We encourage anyone who has been impacted by the pandemic and is struggling to pay their rent to learn more and apply at rentrelief.utah.gov," Christina Oliver, director of the state's Housing and Community Development Division, said in a prepared statement issued Friday. "There are plenty of funds available to pay for rent, utilities, fees and more. Also, we want to remind landlords that they can apply on behalf of their tenants."
To qualify for assistance, Utahns must have a combined household income at or below 80% of area median income; someone in the household has qualified for unemployment or has experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; or the household is experiencing housing instability like receiving a past-due utility or rent notice or eviction notice or is living in unsafe or unhealthy living conditions due to COVID-19.
Eviction filings in Utah were down to 1,975 in the first six months of 2021, a 44% drop from the same periods for 2017 to 2019, according to the Utah Apartment Association. Paul Smith, executive director of the association, urged struggling renters to take advantage of the $150 million in federal money available in Utah.
"It has made many evictions unnecessary," Smith said in a prepared statement.
The federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention played a small role in eviction reduction, Smith said, noting that the moratorium required renters to make a partial payment and apply for rental assistance. Renters who did neither of those could still be evicted, as could renters who committed criminal activity or violated lease agreements.
"Because most renters with balances have received rental assistance, we don't expect a spike in evictions in August," Smith said.
While Utah eviction filings may increase in the second half of 2021, Smith said that increase will likely be minimal. In contrast, housing advocates including those from the Utah Housing Coalition have expressed fears of a "wave of evictions" once the moratorium expires.
"Rental assistance to Utah renters will continue through September of 2022, so most low-income renters who need help will get it," Smith said. "Utah's private sector is in an aggressive hiring push. Signing bonuses and higher wages are being offered by many employers to fill jobs."
Nationally, some $47 billion in funding has already been approved for housing aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's been slow to reach renters and landlords. So far, only about $3 billion has been distributed through June by cities and states. Some states like New York have distributed almost nothing, while several have only approved a few million dollars, the Associated Press reported.
As the moratorium deadline loomed, Biden in a prepared statement issued Friday called on "all state and local governments to take all possible steps to immediately disburse these funds given the imminent ending of the CDC eviction moratorium.
Biden noted state and local governments began receiving emergency rental assistance funding in February and were eligible for an additional $21.5 billion passed in the American Rescue Plan.
"Five months later, with localities across the nation showing that they can deliver funds effectively — there can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic," Biden said.
Biden urged state and local governments to use both emergency rental assistance and their American Rescue Plan funds to "support policies with courts, community groups and legal aid to ensure no one seeks an eviction when they have not sought out emergency rental assistance funds."
Biden also said state and local governments should be aware "there is no legal barrier to moratorium at the state and local level."
"My administration will not rest — nor should state and local governments — until emergency rental assistance dollars reach Americans in need," Biden said.
By the end of March, 6.4 million American households were behind on their rent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey.
With hours to go before the eviction moratorium expires, Congress raced Friday to extend the ban. A House panel convened to consider emergency legislation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., implored colleagues to act, calling it a "moral imperative" to not only protect renters but also the landlords who are owed compensation. Congress must "meet the needs of the American people: both the families unable to make rent and those to whom the rent is to be paid," Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues.
The struggle to extend the ban comes after Biden on Thursday announced his administration would allow it to expire. The White House has argued its hands are tied after the Supreme Court signaled the moratorium would only be extended until the end of the month.
The court ruled in a 5-4 vote last month to allow the eviction ban to continue through the end of July. One of those in the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, made clear he would block any additional extensions unless there was "clear and specific congressional authorization."
Not all lawmakers are on board with an extension, and the House is preparing to leave Friday for a scheduled recess. The Senate is also considering emergency legislation.
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, said the two are working on legislation to extend the moratorium and are asking Republicans not to block it.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the Financial Services chairwoman who authored the emergency bill, urged her colleagues to act.
"Is it emergency enough that you're going to stop families from being put on the street?" Waters said as the Rules Committee met to consider the bill.
But Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, of Washington, the top Republican on another panel handling the issue, said the Democrats' bill was rushed.
"This is not the way to legislate," she said.
The ban was initially put in place to prevent further spread of COVID-19 by people put out on the streets and into shelters.
"The public health necessity of extended protections for renters is obvious," said Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "If federal court cases made a broad extension impossible, the Biden administration should implement all possible alternatives, including a more limited moratorium on federally backed properties."
Gene Sperling, who is charged with overseeing implementation of Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, said it was key that states and local authorities speed up the rental assistance distribution.
But landlords, who have opposed the moratorium and challenged it repeatedly in court, were against any extension. They have argued the focus should be on speeding up the distribution of rental assistance.
The National Apartment Association and several others this week filed a federal lawsuit asking for $26 billion in damages due to the impact of the moratorium.
"Any extension of the eviction moratorium equates to an unfunded government mandate that forces housing providers to deliver a costly service without compensation and saddles renters with insurmountable debt," association president and CEO Bob Pinnegar said, adding that the current crisis highlights the need for more affordable housing.
Contributing: Associated Press