Robert Gehrke: COVID-19 may trigger a housing catastrophe. Here’s how Utah can minimize the pain.

Robert Gehrke

On Monday, the Federal Reserve issued a forecast that has to make Utah policymakers’ blood run cold.

They projected that 47 million Americans could lose their job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving nearly a third of Americans unemployed.

In Utah, 19,600 new unemployment claims were filed the week ending March 21, an all-time record that well could be eclipsed when last week’s data is announced Thursday.

Those shocks to the system could have a devastating effect on renters, landlords and, indeed, the state’s entire housing market.

A subcommittee of the state’s coronavirus task force is studying what to do and should have recommendations in a matter of days. Legislators are also considering options.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (or cleverly shortened, CARES Act) offers relief to some renters, essentially putting a 120-day moratorium on new evictions for renters in certain units that fall under the Violence Against Women Act, some rural development programs or have a federally backed mortgage on the property.

The legislation also prevents lenders from initiating foreclosure proceedings on federally backed loans — which make up about 70% of single-family mortgages — until mid-May.

It’s a good start, and if you’re a renter or homeowner who is out of work, you should act now to find out if you are covered under the federal law.

On top of that, the act appropriates more than $12 billion in housing-related programs and significantly increases unemployment benefits in an attempt to help idled workers.

But it will take some time for that money to flow and there is a role for Herbert and the state to play to fill that gap — similar to how it is trying to help small businesses with state-funded bridge loans.

On Tuesday, Crossroads Urban Center and the Coalition of Religious Communities called on the governor to issue an emergency order halting any evictions for 30 days.

Governors in New York, California, Nevada, Michigan and other states have imposed statewide eviction moratoriums. It is a short-term reprieve for renters, who are still on the hook for the rent and could still be evicted once the period expires.

Herbert said Tuesday that, “A lot of things are on the table to see what we can do to help employers and employees, renters and landlords. We hope there are opportunities for them to work together.”

Here are some tools that I think would be worth considering:

• Last session, the Legislature approved $10 million in affordable housing money, part of a bill sponsored by Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, but the money was primarily to finance new affordable housing projects.

That’s nice in the long term, but the COVID-19 crisis makes short-term rental assistance a higher priority. That money could be repurposed by the Legislature into temporary housing subsidies. “In concept,” Anderegg told me Tuesday, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Subsidies, however, should be contingent on concessions from landlords — a dollar in rental subsidy for a dollar of rent reduction, up to a third of the total rent. So for an average Salt Lake City rental of about $1,200, the landlord could agree to reduce rent by $400, get $400 from the state and the tenant would be responsible for $400. Everyone shares some of the pain.

• There is another pool of money the state could tap into. Last session, advocates were trying to get $5 million for housing funds for homeless students. Legislators didn’t fund the program, but they could come back in a special session and trim some of the money they pumped into education in order to help 12,000 children and their families who are couch-surfing, sharing apartments or living in cars.

• If Herbert is unwilling to suspend evictions, he should at the very least suspend fees and damages charged to tenants. Right now, landlords can hit renters with damages that are triple the amount owed, plus attorney fees, which can be burdensome to someone who already can’t pay rent.

• Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, said banks have expressed a willingness to give mortgage deferrals, sometimes as much as three to six months. Those payments can be added onto the end of a mortgage and don’t cost any additional interest.

“If you’re a landlord and you’re [getting] some relief on your mortgage you would think they would extend that grace to people who are paying their rent,” he said. That should go without saying, but it does need to be said and, more than that, should be a condition of any deferrals.

• Last, but certainly not least, there are private sector options that might be available. Last month, prominent business leaders — the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation, Intermountain Healthcare, the Utah Nonprofit Housing Corporation and Zions Bank — announced a $20 million investment into refurbishing 100 affordable homes.

Part of that could be converted to short-term rental stabilization, but it also may be even more important long-term if landlords can’t make ends meet and have to start selling properties.

None of these ideas will alleviate the problem, but they could keep it from spiraling into something much worse.

“We need to do everything we can,” Headlee said, “to keep this contagion from getting into our real estate market and housing market.”

How bad the damage is will depend largely on how quickly the federal money starts to flow. In the meantime, however, the state government, banks and the private sector all can play a role in helping Utahns keep a roof over their head in the troubling times ahead.