SALT LAKE CITY — There was no immediate surge of eviction cases filed in Utah courts Monday after a nationwide moratorium lifted over the weekend, but advocates expect a wave in coming weeks and are already fielding calls from worried renters.
The freeze on evictions had been in place since September 2020 under a directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seeking to limit the spread of COVID-19. It offered protection to those at risk of losing their homes based solely on nonpayment.
The Utah Apartment Association, which represents landlords, contends hundreds of millions of dollars in federal rental assistance to the Beehive State has mostly helped people stay in their homes and allowed property owners to keep up on their bills. The organization says concerns about a financial cliff for renters are overblown.
Others worry more Utahns will slip into homelessness as rents rise and vacancy rates bottom out across the state.
"I'm nervous to see how this is going shake out, just with the lack of affordable housing units and the vacancy rate being so low," said Angela McGuire, assistant director of the Utah nonprofit People's Legal Aid, which represents tenants at no cost. Some of the group's clients are under extreme stress because they can't take time off from work to move their things into a storage unit and hunt for a new place.
"People have had to live in transitional housing or in their car for a couple of weeks and then all of their stuff was thrown away," she said. "That just compounds the trauma and the mental health aspect of eviction."
The organization is representing renters in 250 cases throughout the state, with many calling in a panic over the last few days to check on the status of the proceedings, McGuire said.
After Utah judges begin signing orders of restitution — which are needed for sheriff's departments to change locks and use force in removing a person from the home — McGuire expects a wave of legal judgments awarding damages to landlords. Many will result in debt collection cases against the evicted renters, she said.
I'm nervous to see how this is going shake out, just with the lack of affordable housing units and the vacancy rate being so low.
–Angela McGuire, assistant director of the Utah nonprofit People's Legal Aid
Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, said millions flowing to the state in rental assistance are helping to stave off eviction cases filed in court.
"The state's been doing a really good job," he said. "We really don't have people that haven't been taken care of."
Roughly 1 in 5 Utah adults who are behind on rent or mortgage payments think it's likely they'll face eviction or foreclosure within two months, according to a census survey conducted in the two-week period ending July 5.
Those who kept their landlords up to date, paid what they could and applied for help from the state or other agencies will be able to stay in their homes, he said, so there isn't a backlog of cases waiting to be filed.
"People that weren't cooperating with their landlords to get rental assistance and weren't making partial payments, they've all been evicted," Smith said. "The eviction quote-unquote moratorium wasn't a moratorium. It was a defense that basically said, 'Renters who are being evicted and meet the following criteria can delay the event.'"
The eviction freeze protected people from being forced to leave their homes, but the courts have continued to hold hearings — mostly online — in the cases during the pandemic.
Eviction proceedings in Utah move more quickly than in many other states and carry serious consequences for those who miss deadlines to move. They may have to pay three times the actual costs owed for the extra time they stayed in the apartment.
The state is hoping to help Utahns get financial help before they face legal trouble. It's urging people to tap into about $150 million in federal relief money that can help cover three months of rent at a time, along with past-due payments, utility bills and other costs.
Those who took a financial hit in the pandemic — whether they lost their jobs, had fewer work shifts or incurred other costs — can apply online at rentrelief.utah.gov. A network of nonprofits including Utah Community Action is helping others make up the difference if they fell on hard times for other reasons.