Evictions: the dark side of Salt Lake City’s housing boom

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake points of interest including the proposed inland port area. Salt Lake Tribune, downtown, capitol, North Salt Lake.

The following story was written and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with West View Media.

Preston Lange had just embarked on the pilgrimage many a plucky young 20-somethings will make, heading out of his hometown to chase his dream and make a living on his own terms. But he had only been at the Sky Harbor Apartment complex on 1876 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City about six months when he found rent was suddenly approaching faster than money was coming in.

Lange’s passion is video production – creating music, wedding and the occasional corporate video, but the work is “feast or famine,” and he was in a “famine” stretch and asked his landlords if he could get a few extra days on his rent. He pushed it too far and had finally got a paycheck on the 12th of the month only to be served an eviction notice that day. The management offered to let him stay only if he paid an extra $500 for a legal settlement.

Lange was facing the dreaded three-day eviction notice and went into a panic that grips many renters. He didn’t know where to turn and even called several lawyers only to be told that their free consultations could only happen days after the three-day deadline.

“I ended up sucking it up and paying the $500 just to get rid of the problem,” Lange says. In the end he doesn’t bear a grudge against management, but wishes they would have given him more warning about when the eviction would go to the lawyer.

“It sucks, but there’s definitely people in way worse situations than me,” Lange says.

Indeed, there are scores of worse situations for renters all over the state, including the west side of Salt Lake City.

While the booming housing market has brought profit to home sellers and real estate investors, the boom has also exploded the price of living in Utah, with some of the worst collateral damage hitting low- and middle-income renters struggling to find affordable housing.

Local experts – from housing advocates to a local evictions lawyer – agree that the skyrocketing home values bring with them higher rents as well. Plus, low vacancy rates mean landlords are less likely to cut tenants slack knowing that there are many other potential renters out there.

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project (The Project) searched court databases for eviction records for 48 of the largest west-side apartment complexes, that combined, offer 7,745 units for rent. These notices don’t always mean a tenant was evicted, some disputes get settled. But in 2017 there were 230 eviction notices filed for these large complexes, and from January 1 to Aug. 30, 2018 — with four months left in the year — there were already 226 eviction notices filed.

The gap

The Salt Lake Chamber’s Housing Gap Coalition recently commissioned a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah that found there are 54,047 more households than there are homes available. Since 2010 the report states Utah has added four new households for every three new housing units.

June Hiatt of the Utah Housing Coalition says this housing demand makes it a lot more profitable for upscale housing complexes, like those that have gone in near the North Temple FrontRunner station that charge rents few westsiders can afford. Ironically a lot of residents live there, she says, and then hop on the train and head to Utah County’s “Silicon Slopes” area to work.

“Now we’re seeing these massive developments coming in and really skyrocketing prices, which affects all of the naturally occurring affordable housing in the area,” Hiatt says.

Large westside complexes that filed the highest rates of evictions per units on site include subsidized housing units operated by the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City.

Taylor Gardens, a subsidized housing complex for seniors with housing vouchers located at 1790 S. West Temple saw 13 eviction notices filed since 2017. Right next to the site of the swanky Blue Lotus project on North Temple is Freedom Landing, subsidized housing for veterans transitioning out of homelessness. Since 2017, 15 eviction notices were filed there. These tenants face the added sting that once evicted, they can’t get back on Section 8 housing, with its federal subsidies, for seven years.

In August 2018 Freedom Landing evicted a resident for owing only $45 in rent. Zac Pau’u, the director of homeless programs for the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, said that the man had not paid rent for nine months and up to that point the Housing Authority had used grant funding to cover him.

“We are in the business of taking people off the streets, not putting people on them,” Pau’u said. “Therefore, each eviction is only considered after lengthy deliberation.”

Judgment trap

One of the confusing aspects of the law is that the three-day eviction notice often appears to give the tenant only two options – pay or leave. In reality, the most important thing to do is usually not printed on the notice – the tenant needs to respond to the landlord in writing. It could even be a handwritten letter.

If the tenant doesn’t respond quickly, a default judgment follows with hefty additional fees – including attorneys fees – added onto the rental debt.

Last year the Solara Apartment complex at 780 N. 900 West had the highest rate of eviction notices filed per units of all the large westside apartments complexes — 18 percent. It also had 44 default judgment evictions.

Those tenants on average owed $329 but received default judgments against them averaging $2,853, primarily because they didn’t respond to an eviction notice or, in some cases, show up in court. These judgments will stay on their records when they try and apply for housing in the future.

James Deans is an eviction attorney in Salt Lake City, representing landlords. He finds no joy in putting people out on the street and works to cut deals whenever he can. On the flip side, he represents small landlords who live off their rental income, and he’s happy to make sure a bad tenant doesn’t end up putting his client out on the street.

Deans agrees that too often tenants simply don’t communicate with landlords when they get the notice.

“Even if I just write on a piece of toilet paper ‘I intend to move out,’ that saves a default judgment going against you,” Dean says.

This story first ran in The West View, a quarterly print publication focusing on Salt Lake City’s westside. You can also find it online at www.westviewmedia.org.