Utah governor pressured to extend rent deferrals and eviction moratorium to July 15

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man on the balcony of a Salt Lake City apartment, on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Civic groups, faith leaders and advocates for low-income Utahns are pressing Gov. Gary Herbert to extend his coronavirus-related rent deferral and eviction moratorium for two more months — a move hotly resisted by many landlords.

The Republican governor’s current order, issued April 1, allowed a relatively narrow segment of renters to defer their payments until May 15 and temporarily barred evictions for those affected by COVID-19.

With the order’s expiration approaching, advocates said that many renters thrown out of work by the pandemic continue to struggle, even as the state has begun to lift stay-at-home directives and reopen parts of its economy. They want Herbert to push the deadline to July 15.

“Extending the eviction deferral order will provide more time for renters to stabilize their incomes until we see greater certainty in the economy as more of us will be able to return to work,” they wrote in a Wednesday letter to Herbert.

Giving renters more time will also let many of them 'Stay Safe, Stay Home’ as per city, county and state health directives, they wrote — and avoid becoming homeless or having to look for new housing as the virus continues to spread.

News of this lobbying emerged as state officials prepare to launch a new $4 million rental assistance program Monday.

That program will make direct rent payments to landlords of tenants who seek help and would specifically cover renters who don’t qualify for other COVID-19 relief, said Jonathan Hardy, director of housing and community development at the state Department of Workforce Services.

“This will primarily help people who are falling through the safety net of unemployment insurance,” Hardy said Thursday.

In their letter to Herbert, advocates noted that some of the state’s most vulnerable residents have yet to receive or do not qualify for new unemployment aid, the $1,200 federal stimulus checks or other COVID-19 relief.

Signed by leaders from 21 religious organizations; housing, health and hunger nonprofits; and other groups, the letter asks Herbert for a ban on all nonessential evictions and prohibitions on hitting troubled tenants with new rent hikes, late fees, damages or interest through July 15. They also want renters to have a grace period of up to a year to catch up on missed rent payments without penalties.

But a spokesman for the Utah Apartment Association said it adamantly opposed the extension and other state limits sought by advocates, adding that landlords “have already done their part” under Herbert’s first moratorium.

“We are the only industry in the state that floated citizens for 45 days,” Paul Smith, the association’s director, said Thursday. “Gas stations didn't say, 'Come get free gas and pay us in 45 days.' Grocery stores didn't. Food providers didn’t.”

For April, the association encouraged its members, with backing from some of the Wasatch Front’s top residential property owners and managers, to enter into rent deferral arrangements with tenants where they could afford it.

“So we're proud that we were accommodating,” Smith said, “but 45 days is enough.”

In their letter, the groups — include several Christian denominations, Crossroad Urban Center, the League of Women Voters, Utah Health Policy Project and Voices for Utah’s Children — urged landlords to draw on bridge loans and other government aid, refinance their mortgages or negotiate rent delays with tenants until renters get back on their feet.

Smith countered that it was time instead for trillions in federal and state government relief passed to cope with the pandemic to kick in and for renters themselves to “take responsibility.”

He noted that the housing markets in Salt Lake City saw some of the lowest rent delinquencies for April among U.S. cities and that pattern would likely hold for May.

Herbert’s original order only applied to tenants who’d kept current on rent through March 31 and either lost their jobs or saw pay cuts due to the coronavirus or public orders to contain it; were subject to a mandatory quarantine; or who have been infected with COVID-19.

And it only let tenants hit by the crisis delay their rent payments, not avoid them.

Anna Lehnardt, Herbert’s communication director, would only say Thursday that the governor’s current order “is under review, which is standard procedure for all expiring orders.”

Hardy, with state housing and community development, said that officials across state government have worked in recent weeks to pull together money for the $4 million rental assistance program, as May 15 approached.

Board members overseeing the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan fund approved a plan to divert $1 million in other federal money for the aid, with U.S. government approval, he said. The other $3 million, Hardy said, has come from cash sent to Utah under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, approved by Congress in late March.

The rent aid will be overseen through the state Department of Workforce Services, which also oversees unemployment. Rent payments of up to $1,500 will be awarded on a month-to-month basis, Hardy said, and how long the program will operate depends on how long Utah remains in crisis mode.

State lawmakers, meeting in a recent special session, have also set aside another $20 million for housing programs but are keeping that money in reserve until August, when much of the federal relief under the CARES Act is set to run out.

“What is the environment going to look like in August and what will we need to help out with?” Hardy asked. “That is a little unclear now, so we’ll be adjusting over the next couple of months.”