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Forced out of South Salt Lake, renters scramble to find new homes in Utah's tight market

Lyndsey Vence, left, and Tami Jordan, who are renters on the border of South Salt Lake and Millcreek along 3900 South, talk on Wednesday about being forced to find a new home in Utah's tight rental market after a high-end developer bought seven homes on their block.

Lyndsey Vence, left, and Tami Jordan, who are renters on the border of South Salt Lake and Millcreek along 3900 South, talk on Wednesday about being forced to find a new home in Utah's tight rental market after a high-end developer bought seven homes on their block. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — One of her neighbors was already sobbing last month as Maritza Ordoñez unfolded a letter informing her that she and other renters on her block had a month and a half to find a new place to live.

Their mail carrier also began to cry in August as she delivered the notices to seven households, most of them families with children who were renting month-to-month. A new owner has different plans for their neighborhood on the border of South Salt Lake and Millcreek, planning to raze their homes to build high-end housing.

With less than two weeks to move and no luck in negotiating more time, most are still scouring listings and sending applications. Few apartments are available and many are listed for double their current monthly payments, putting most places out of reach even though Ordoñez and others on her street work multiple jobs.

"It's just angry all the time, crying all the time, not knowing what to do," said Ordoñez, 41. "Not having enough time to actually do everything the right way is just what's stressing us."

Their experience reflects a grim reality for tenants in the Beehive State as rents soar, leaving middle- and low-income families vulnerable, according to James Wood with the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. In 2000, the average rent for an apartment in Salt Lake County was $647. The average monthly payment rose to $1,153 by 2018, according to a Gardner Institute analysis.

"When you're growing as fast as we are, it just puts really serious pressure on the infrastructure," Wood said. "You see how many units have come on over the last several years and it's still a really tight market, even though we've got record levels of new construction."

Ordoñez and her two daughters share their three-bedroom house on a busy stretch of 3900 South, an area near several hospitals and Millcreek Canyon's popular hiking trails. The home is far from perfect, she told during a break from packing her family's belongings into boxes. Her requests for a previous landlord to remove mold were never addressed, but at $1,045, the rent fit her budget and she liked the central location,

She's a top-rated dog boarder with the service Rover. Finding a new place has proved especially difficult because of the kennel service, she said. She's up front about the business, but it's a nonstarter for most landlords. She also cleans homes. But when both of her businesses took a hit during the pandemic, she was forced to draw heavily from savings she'd intended to use to buy a house someday.

Many are caught in the same cycle, Wood said, unable to buy the homes they'd planned to and instead remain perennial tenants.

Utah's breakneck population growth doesn't help, either. It was fastest in the nation in the last decade, along with No. 1 employment growth at nearly 30%.

Business leaders and lawmakers in Utah had renters like Ordoñez in mind in creating a fund last year that's buying up homes and renting them at low rates. But the nonprofit Utah Housing Preservation Fund is bidding against deep-pocketed investors, Wood said.

Federal efforts to address the national housing shortage could help give it a leg up. President Joe Biden's administration announced plans this week to limit how many homes insured by the Federal Housing Administration are sold to large investors and instead give priority to organizations like the fund created last year.

Her neighbor Jessie Eoff, 54, moved into a two-bedroom home north of Ordoñez about the same time for $850 a month. Like Ordoñez, she also works with dogs as a groomer and has three mutts of her own.

She's known for a long time she'd have to move at some point, she said, but the former property manager assured her she'd know several months in advance.

With a recommendation letter from her prior landlord in hand, she's seen six places, including one that insisted she send an immediate deposit but turned out to be a scam by someone who hijacked an online ad.

A representative of the new property owner told her she could bid on her home after it's remodeled, she said. That company did not return requests for comment this week.

Neighbors Tami Jordan and Lyndsey Vence have been tapping out pleas for any available apartments on Facebook, acknowledging they're beginning to panic as their Sept. 15 deadline to move approaches. But many landlords want first and last month's rent to move into a new place, totaling up to $4,000, they noted.

Vence has a husband and three children, but they're staying with her mom, due to fungus growing unabated in their basement, she said. It was one of many issues that factored into an agreement with the prior owner to return their deposit and absolve last month's rent, but the deal vanished with the sale of the property, she said.

"One way or another, we'll get through it," said Jordan, a nursing assistant who works a second job at a deli. She said the stress is causing chest pains as she, her husband and their two adult children search for a new place.

Eoff agreed. She doesn't want to stand in the way of progress, she said, but she doesn't feel she and her neighbors are being given enough time.

"There's no structure, there's no rules in place to keep people from just gouging us renters," she said. "I was born and raised here. I have the right to complain about my state when there's injustice going on."

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