Housing advocates warn that a crisis looms for Utah’s renters.
They fear an impending surge in evictions as legal protections tied to the pandemic expire and government relief checks begin to run out in July.
Others contend that billions in federal assistance and a pending economic recovery could ease the state through the summer months without a major rise in homelessness.
The uncertainties have some officials urgently seeking new ways to help the state’s lower-wage earners thrown from their jobs by COVID-19. Many displaced workers continue to fall behind on their rent, advocates and government experts say, and their prospects turned more bleak after a 45-day state hiatus on removing many renters from their homes expired May 15.
A hastily organized $4 million state rental assistance program for those who don’t qualify for unemployment has received nearly 1,093 inquiries. Several aid agencies have fielded hundreds of calls daily in recent weeks from families searching for help.
And even as Gov. Gary Herbert continues to ease restrictions, parts of the economy reopen and some idled employees return to work, housing is by far the chief reason Utahns are dialing 2-1-1, the emergency phone number dedicated to referring residents to available health and social programs.
“People are being turned away. There's a lot of confusion,” said June Hiatt, organizer with the grassroots advocacy group Utah Renters Together. “There wasn't enough time from when the state rolled out its program and when the moratorium ended to protect people. So we believe people are falling through the cracks.”
Of particular concern are thousands of workers at restaurants, bars, hotels and retail outlets — industries that have borne the brunt of job losses, furloughs and pay cuts.
Many of them earn lower incomes, hold down several jobs and were already struggling to make rent payments before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, officials said, at times spending half their paychecks or more on housing costs.
“The burden of this crisis is not falling evenly,” warned Darin Mellott, a Salt Lake City real estate executive who heads a state COVID-19 panel focused on housing.
While Herbert’s April 1 moratorium order was narrow in scope and allowed only some renters to defer payments until May 15, it did slow eviction-related court filings significantly. Even so, he’s resisted pressure to extend it.
April and early May saw an average of nine eviction complaints filed in Utah courts per day. That rate has risen to 16 cases per day since the moratorium lifted, with 224 cases total filed from May 18 through Friday.
The trade association representing Utah’s landlords says that pace is still well below the usual clip of up to 30 complaints daily, or about 600 evictions initiated each month.
That may be explained, in part, by the fact that federal eviction moratoriums remain in place.
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, has temporarily halted evictions for most residents living in federally subsidized housing. That includes apartments financed with what are called low-income tax credits, which are commonly used in building affordable homes.
The CARES Act also placed a similar moratorium on evicting renters from homes with mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Those two orders are thought to cover somewhere between 45% and 70% of rental units in Utah.
Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, said that despite three months of heavy job losses in Utah from the pandemic and social distancing, roughly 4% of the state’s renters ended up missing their monthly payments in April and only 2% missed them in May.
Utahns should still expect an upswing in evictions as the pandemic wears on, Smith said, “but it’s not going to be as big as some people might expect.”
Smith and others say the federal government’s recent $1,200 stimulus checks issued to many Americans and the $600 weekly bonus added to state unemployment benefits are helping to stabilize many renters’ finances.
Relief recipients, Smith said, “are using the money responsibly. They’re paying the rent.”
A top state official estimated last week that unemployment benefits alone have already pumped nearly $533 million into Utah’s economy, with more than 194,000 residents seeking jobless aid since mid-March.
And with what Mellott called “wary optimism,” he said he agreed that relief aid is working, adding that “it really appears the safety net is holding for the most part.”
But housing advocates are deeply skeptical and are urging state and local governments to ready additional assistance for when the remaining bans on evictions and the federal boost to jobless benefits all go away, on July 27.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’re going to see more people being evicted because they're waiting on assistance,” predicted Tara Rollins with Utah Housing Coalition.
Help in the long haul
Rollins and other housing advocates nationally are pushing Congress to pass a $100 billion rental assistance bill. In addition to cash for financially challenged families to pay rent and utilities, the Senate bill would impose a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
Hiatt, with Utah Renters Together, said that hardship and desperation are already mounting for thousands of workers who’ve seen layoffs or pay cuts but must wait while their applications for jobless benefits are being processed.
It can still take up to four weeks from the time workers file online and unemployment assistance actually arrives, the Department of Workforce Services confirmed. And many Utahns who’ve lost work through no fault of their own don’t qualify for benefits, including those who were new to their jobs.
Troubling research, according to Hiatt and her colleague Jacob Rosenzweig, indicates that neighborhoods in Salt Lake County where COVID-19 infection rates are highest are also where evictions are most frequent.
Valerie Walton, director of special projects over housing and homelessness for Salt Lake County, said that in addition to lower wage earners upended by the pandemic, elderly residents on fixed incomes and victims of domestic violence are also vulnerable to losing their homes for financial reasons.
“We know economic and health recovery are key, but not all populations will recover at the same rate,” Walton said. “Some households will need longer-term assistance.”
Just as Herbert’s eviction order expired, the state announced nearly $4 million in new rental assistance for residents who don’t qualify for unemployment aid. Eligible renters can receive payments of up to $1,500 a month, paid directly to their landlords.
Initial requests have been intense, advocates say, and the program has seen some hiccups as hundreds call and seek applications. A spokeswoman for the Department of Workforce Services said that many of those inquiries have come from people already receiving jobless benefits, making them ineligible.
So far, 163 residents have applications in process, the spokeswoman said, and 16 applicants have been approved for help.
At the behest of Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City may boost existing housing support with a new $1.1 million rental and mortgage assistance program and another $100,000 to put toward rapidly rehousing those who’ve lost their homes — subject to approval by the City Council.
But more eyes are focused on $20 million carved out for housing needs by the Utah Legislature in late April, from other federal relief money. Though it’s meant to help residents harmed by COVID-19 to “retain or obtain housing,” lawmakers have intentionally set aside that cash until Aug. 1, when other CARES aid runs out.
Members of a panel advising the governor on housing problems want some of that money spent now, for rental assistance, mediation with landlords and other aid.
Mellott, who heads that committee, said indications from Capitol Hill are that lawmakers will make some of that cash available sooner “to help folks who might be in particularly tricky or dire circumstances.”
But he said the bulk of those funds may prove more useful in September, when the state has a clearer picture of its needs after federal aid is exhausted.