What Utah renters should know about coronavirus aid

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) William Heinig, a 23 year-old Salt Lake City resident, has seen his part-time hours go down to around 5 hours a week, and he is worried that he won't be able to pay the rent on his one-bedroom apartment for April.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

William Heinig is among thousands of Utah renters now being pushed to a cliff’s edge by the coronavirus emergency.

The 23-year-old New Yorker who moved to Salt Lake City four years ago now works part time clerking at a Chevron gas station. Like people the world over, he’s deeply worried — but less about catching the virus than about keeping a roof over his head.

April rent for Heinig and other residents at Altitude on Fifth Apartments near Pioneer Park is coming due in a matter of days. But his work hours and pay have been cut in half these past few weeks as business dropped off due to COVID-19.

“It’s a big stressor,” Heinig said Friday. “I’m just going to be honest with my landlord. There’s a 90% chance I’m not even going to be able to make rent.”

[Read complete coronavirus coverage here.]

Property managers for Altitude on Fifth didn’t respond to requests for comment. Heinig said he’s gotten leeway on his phone, electric and internet bills, but when he reached out to his landlord for help, “they said, ‘It’s not our problem.’”

Similar stories are unfolding across the Beehive State as the viral outbreak and attempts to contain it continue to roil Utah’s economy. Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts for workers are growing as many small businesses have had to close temporarily and many residents hunker down at home.

That damage came into sharper focus Thursday, when Utah reported a historically high 19,591 new weekly claims for unemployment — four times the previous record set during the Great Recession.

Roughly 30% of Utahns rent their homes — and that includes large shares of the state’s restaurant, food-service, hospitality and retail employees idled in recent weeks.

“You’re dealing with parts of the economy with workers who generally have lower skill sets or a lot of part-time work,” said Mark Knold, chief economist with the state Department of Workforce Services. “You’re dealing with many people that live paycheck to paycheck in various contexts.”

Help is coming. The U.S. government’s $2 trillion stimulus package won approval Friday and promises to put $1,200 checks in the hands of all American adults, along with relief on tax bills, payment delays for mortgage holders and measures to temporarily halt many evictions.

But none of that is likely to reach Heinig and other struggling renters by April 1.

The Utah Apartment Association, representing more than 2,500 landlords and roughly a third of the state’s rental units, is telling landlords that while most tenants will still be able to pay, “there may legitimately be cases where someone was sick or quarantined or lost income because of business closures.”

“We are strongly encouraging our landlords to accommodate renters in need,” Paul Smith, the association’s executive director, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Most of us are working from home. We still have income. We have savings,” Smith said. “So this is not a program that we expect to be used by everyone, but we want to make it available to those who really need it.”

Nearly 30 of Utah’s largest apartment management firms, which together oversee between a third and half of Utah’s rentals — have signed on. Smith said he’s also hearing similar stories from among the tens of thousands of “mom and pop landlords” in Utah, who own and rent single-family homes, basement apartments and buildings with two to four units.

“Most landlords are very kind and compassionate,” Smith said. “Are they worried about themselves? You bet they are. But they’re trying to put those worries aside and focus right now on how they can accommodate and serve our customers.”

As the COVID-19 crisis began to build in Utah a few weeks ago, Alex Lampe, owner of a fourplex of rentals in Salt Lake City, reached out to tenants who might be struggling, telling them he could afford a small break on April’s rent.

Turns out, none has lost a job as yet and all are able to work from home, he said, so they instead urged him to offer the help to others.

“I was very moved by that, especially because they didn’t have to do it,” said Lampe, who instead donated the money to the Utah Food Bank.

The state Apartment Association, while urging rent relief, also said landlords should verify that tenants requesting payment delay have legitimate coronavirus hardships and that they sign a contract that covers plans for eventual repayment.

The nonprofit group is recommending that landlords defer only April’s rents for now, saying they can reassess later as the situation evolves.

And the reality is that many Utah landlords have mortgage payments of their own or they rely on rentals for basic income and other needs. Smith said many of them remain hopeful for relief of their own in this crisis, in the form of mortgage deferral programs from the banking industry.

Landlords, Smith said, also hope the new $2 trillion stimulus package “will put money quickly into the hands of tenants to help them with their obligations, and us with ours.”

The newly passed stimulus package aims to get aid checks of $1,200 per individual with an additional $500 for every qualifying child age 16 or under, though those amounts phase out for people at higher incomes. The package would also add as much as $600 to state unemployment checks for as long as four months, with a goal of replacing lost paychecks until the emergency subsides.

The law also puts a 120-day moratorium on evictions for renters whose landlords are mortgage holders under federally backed loan programs such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which make up a substantial share of home mortgages in Utah. It also bars those landlords from charging fees or penalties for late rent payments.

Utah Renters Together, a Salt Lake City-based advocacy group, is calling for an across-the-board moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in the state. One of its leaders argues that kicking folks out of their homes makes no sense when public health officials are also telling people to social distance to slow COVID-19.

“They’re going to maybe get a single room in a motel. They’re going to move in with friends or family. They’re going to sleep in the car. They’re going to sit on the street or in a shelter,” Jacob Rosenzweig said Friday.

“These are places where people are in close contact with each other,” he said, “and we know that that is what spreads the disease.”

Yet about 291 eviction orders have been filed in Utah courts since March 6, Rosenzweig noted — even as the state began stepping up health restrictions, closing dine-in options at restaurants and other food-service sites and shutting down most public gatherings.

The best guess, according to members of Utah’s congressional delegation, is that financial help under the new law will reach average Americans within two to three weeks. But that might well be forever for Heinig and thousands of other Utahns now teetering on the financial edge.

Heinig said Friday he expects a “pay or vacate notice” to show up on his door shortly after the first of the month, essentially giving him three calendar days to come up with rent or be out on the street.

“But I’m going to tell them they’re going to have to take me to court, because I know this is not my fault,” he said. “It’s the COVID depression.”