How a former Utes basketball player’s eviction reveals the tough spot many renters are in during the COVID-19 pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former University of Utah basketball player Ken Gardner is now a 71-year-old heart transplant recipient. He was evicted from an apartment in Draper in September after falling three days behind on rent, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

His health may be shaky and luck in short supply, but Ken Gardner said he hasn’t stopped measuring his life in miracles.

The retired 71-year-old jokes he was “a 6-foot-5, slow, non-jumping white kid from Clearfield” who made it big 50 years ago as a high-scoring University of Utah basketball player, who went on to play for the Utah Stars and pro leagues in France.

When doctors declared his heart “shot” in 2013 — long after Gardner survived a heart attack and five-way bypass surgery — the former Ute star received a transplant. But not before he beat colon cancer the same year when it simply disappeared three months after his diagnosis.

Since last spring, Gardner has struggled to keep up with monthly health costs on a fixed income and fell behind on some bills — including going three days late on rent for his two-bedroom apartment in Draper. A legal pay-or-vacate notice showed up on his door the fourth day.

“I thought that was pretty damn harsh,” said Gardner, who has since been forcibly evicted and is homeless, something government officials say they are trying to prevent.

“I’ve had miracles happen to me," he said, “but no miracle is going to come down and pay my rent and credit card bills.”

(Salt Lake Tribune File Photo) U of U basketball player Ken Gardner

There’s a national moratorium on residential evictions in place but it only goes so far. Utah also has set aside millions for rental assistance from COVID-19 relief money sent by Congress. Neither of those protections helped Gardner.

Other details of his experience echo those of Utahns involved in nearly 2,430 eviction cases filed in state courts since the pandemic began.

The longtime West Valley City resident sat recently in a Quality Inn motel room in Draper, outgoing and in good humor even though his stress levels were sky-high and his deep and easy laugh sometimes gave way to a cough.

He remains in debt, medically vulnerable “rehabbing a 37-year-old heart” as he puts it — and moving between motel rooms while he tries his best to dodge COVID-19.

Gardner said part of him was sheepish about telling his story. He’s the president of a scholarship foundation for heart donors' family members — and worried about his image among philanthropists who support his cause.

But then, he said, “I got mad.”

“Millions and millions of Americans are having difficulty just like I am, including small businesses, ma and pa restaurants and beauty salons, spas, you name it,” Gardner said. “I’m nothing special.”

And after bitter wrangling with attorneys for his former landlord, he said he’s also angry at the powerful law firm that drove his eviction.

The law offices of Kirk A. Cullimore in Draper, which handled the case, represent a sizable majority of landlords in Utah and one of its top partners, Kirk Cullimore Jr., is also a state senator. The firm files thousands of eviction cases yearly and Cullimore has faced claims that his dual roles pose a conflict of interest.

Gardner bristled, in particular, that the law firm received a pandemic-relief loan in April through the Paycheck Protection Program “and yet all these people are getting booted out by Cullimore’s law firm.”

The moratorium

Congress first put a pandemic-related eviction moratorium in place in late March. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert added to that April 1, with a statewide order temporarily barring eviction filings and allowing renters to defer payments through May 15.

The federal edict then expired in late July, but a second moratorium came down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, aimed at halting residential evictions for nonpayment of rent “to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”

That order remains in effect until Dec. 31, although it is being challenged in court. The CDC moratorium also has a lot of conditions.

A tenant’s income has to be below $99,000 a year. Tenants have to have “used best efforts” to get any available government aid and to make partial rent payments. They must be unable to pay their rent or house payment due to a substantial loss of income, a layoff or extraordinary medical costs. And they have to show they’re out of options and would be homeless if evicted.

They also have to file an affidavit in their case, invoking the moratorium. Not everybody knows about that.

And even then, the moratorium doesn’t absolve renters of their financial obligations or added penalties. Nor does the order prevent landlords from starting eviction proceedings as long as the actual eviction doesn’t take place before Jan. 1.

“It doesn’t say the landlords can’t do evictions. It doesn’t say that courts can’t grant evictions,” said Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, a trade group for landlords. “It just says there’s a defense if you can provide an affidavit.”

Tara Rollins, an advocate with nonprofit Utah Housing Coalition, said renters often don’t know their rights and some landlords are flatly refusing to help, meaning the system isn’t working as intended.

“We are told there should be no evictions for nonpayment,” Rollins said. “What is going on?”

Meant to help

Evictions are proceeding, but despite the pandemic’s grievous hit to the U.S. and Utah economies since March, the Beehive State has not seen a huge spike, according to a tally of court filings.

In fact, the pace of eviction filings remains well below monthly averages in prior years. Between March and September, Utah’s courts saw an average of 327 cases filed per month, compared to an average of 518 cases for those same months over the prior three years.

Smith and other officials tasked with advising Herbert on housing trends point to the state’s relative economic strength compared to the rest of the country and the assistance of federal aid.

Congress enhanced jobless benefits and sent vast sums of money to states, including $20 million that Utah is spending on rental assistance.

As state lawmakers adjusted the program in August to make it easier to use for landlords, Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, told colleagues the program’s goal was for there to be “no evictions due to lack of payment of rent until the end of the year, when all this money has to be spent.”

But Smith said accessing the money requires tenants to work with their landlords, make every effort to pay — and, more basically, to recognize they need help. But he said some renters have instead reacted to the financial impacts of the pandemic with fear and paralysis.

“A lot of renters just don’t know what they’re doing,” Smith said. “They’re terrified and they bury their heads in the sand.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Workforce Services said that nearly half that $20 million has been spent, $5.5 million in rent payments to tenants and another $4 million to landlords, who, thanks to those tweaks by the Legislature, are allowed to apply on behalf of delinquent renters.

The state had received 3,865 applications for the aid, the spokeswoman said — although many of those are repeat applications from tenants and landlords seeking help with several months' rent.

After a late-summer advertising blitz, applications have “increased significantly,” said Christina Davis at Workforce Services, “and we now expect that we will exhaust the available funds by the end of the year.”

Housing advocate say that while the rental assistance has helped keep some folks in their homes, there have been delays.

“It’s incredibly slow and landlords are notoriously impatient,” said June Hiatt, an organizer for Utah Renters Together, a grassroots group. “So people are being evicted for nonpayment. They’re being evicted three days late.”

Strong and alive

Gardner ranks among the University of Utah’s top 10 in points per game and top five for per-game rebounds. He was twice named best American player in France, where one of the teams he played for, AS Berck, won that country’s national championship two years running.

He said he’d realized “a dream of mine” while guarding Hall of Famer Julius Erving during his brief stint with the Stars.

“I’m proud to say I’ve been dunked on by Dr. J,” he said with a laugh.

Gardner then worked as a Delta customer service agent from 1983 to 2002, when he took early retirement after two hip replacements. Ten years later, his persistent heart problems worsened.

He received a heart transplant in 2013 after a former Brigham Young University football player named Nick Longshore was killed in an ATV accident.

“So I’m a Ute with a BYU heart,” Gardner quipped.

Gardner has since grown close to Longshore’s wife, Caroline, and daughter Hannah and established his Hearts 4 Hearts Scholarship Foundation to provide college scholarships to organ donors' surviving family members, including Hannah.

The transplant saved his life, though it left him with at least $450 in ongoing monthly medical costs, much of it for drugs that keep his body from rejecting the organ.

“I don’t mean to sound like a pitiful guy because I’m blessed," he said. “I’m strong and I’m alive.”

In limbo

Gardner said he moved into The Ivy at Draper, a senior living complex, in April, partly because it had a spare bedroom he could use as an office for his foundation.

He said he kept current with rent until September and lapsed on paying, thinking the CDC moratorium would protect him. But the pay-or-vacate order affixed to his door on Sept. 4 — the same day the CDC edict took effect — put eviction proceedings in motion all the same.

Lawyers at Cullimore’s firm told Gardner that his landlord refused his offers to pay in full to settle the matter and instead “they just wanted me out,” he said.

Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to contact officials at Greystar, the privately held worldwide developer and property management company that runs The Ivy, for comment were unsuccessful.

Reached via email, Kirk Cullimore Sr., father to Sen. Kirk Cullimore and a partner in the law firm, declined to comment on Gardner’s case. He said that Cullimore Jr., a Sandy Republican elected to the Utah Senate in 2018, had been assigned to other duties in the law office that do not involve evictions “for some time.”

Gardner said that after negotiations on the phone, he finally agreed to pay $1,000 on a Friday and in exchange, he’d move out over the course of a weekend and the case against him would be dismissed. Then, at 4 p.m. that evening, Gardner said, a constable showed up and told him, "You have five minutes to get out or I’m going to arrest you.' "

“So, I tried to joke around with him and I said, ‘Well, will you at least let me get my lifesaving anti-rejection meds for my heart?’” he recalled. The constable agreed but the rest of Gardner’s belongings stayed locked inside.

He’s since shuttled between motels, tried to scrape funds together and fought to get things resolved. First came the exasperating calls to recover the rest of his possessions, including medications, locked inside his old place. Then, there were near-daily feuds over back rent, interest, a lost security deposit, escalating late fees and getting an order issued to clear his record just so he can rent another place.

And he’s still in limbo, waiting on the next checks from Social Security and his small Delta pension. “I’m quarantined in this motel. All my belongings and clothes are out in the car," Gardner said. Of nearly $2,900 the firm says he still owes, “a thousand dollars of it is attorney’s fees.”

Frustrated, with no clear path to a stable place to stay, he’s far from the only Utahn in that position.