The following story was supported by a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Dan Knighton was holding onto everything he could but was losing his grip. His marriage ended, and the pandemic cost him his job as a facilities manager for a chain of movie theaters.
His landlord was willing to work with him through the summer. As fall approached and new management took over the Legacy Crossing Apartments in Centerville, however, sympathy for Knighton’s plight ran out at the same time as his federal unemployment checks. An eviction was filed against him Sept. 16.
“I just got divorced after 20 years, just lost my job after 20 years and then having to go through that…” he said with a pause. “It’s been pretty depressing.”
Utah is notorious for its 3-day eviction notices that give renters little time to try to scrape together back rent, get assistance from a lawyer, or even load up all their belongings. But the state law was preempted by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress in March.
That law included renter protections — including a 30-day notice requirement and eviction ban for eligible renters — especially for those living at “covered properties” backed by federal mortgages.
While federal and state protections have dramatically reduced the number of evictions, hundreds a month are still occurring in Utah. Renters have been pushed out and forced onto the street or into cramped quarters with family or friends during the deadly pandemic through a combination of loopholes in the law, lack of enforcement teeth and an overwhelming disparity of legal representation for renters and landlords.
Knighton’s eviction from Legacy Crossing came after the end of the first eviction ban but should have been covered by a second moratorium authorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 4.
Knighton said not only was he evicted, he was given only a weekend to clear out — not enough time to take everything with him and he had to leave behind a washer and dryer, among other belongings. He moved in with a friend. His younger brother who had been living with him at Legacy Crossing now sleeps in his car.
“They were absolutely not willing to cooperate with us at all,” Knighton said of the apartment managers. “They actually called me out on Friday and said, ‘I need you guys out of the apartment by Monday.’”
The legal complaint filed against him appears to confirm a CARES Act violation in that Knighton didn’t receive the 30-day notice it requires of landlords. The complaint includes two separate notices: a standard Utah three-day notice filed on Sept. 6 and a 30-day CARES Act notice filed Aug. 26. Knighton said he never received the 30-day notice.
Dave Todd, an attorney with The Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore, said his client Legacy Crossing served an earlier 30-day notice at the end of July. However, no such notice was included in the firm’s Sept. 16 eviction complaint. Todd said Knighton never responded to the legal filing.
Knighton’s story of frustration and decline is far from unique.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project has reviewed over 1,000 eviction filings made by the Cullimore law firm — the state leader in this area — and spoke with scores of the people affected.
Down and out
Evictions in Utah have decreased during state and federal moratoriums, dropping from a monthly average of 518 during the March-September time frame the past two years to 327 during a comparable period this year. Court records show, however, that as soon as a ban has expired, evictions bounced back to pre-pandemic rates.
The Cullimore firm is the state’s largest filer of evictions and the firm’s head, Kirk A. Cullimore, is a past president of the Utah Apartment Association — the state lobby group for landlords. His son, Kirk Cullimore Jr., is a Republican state senator from Cottonwood Heights who is also listed on the firm’s website as being the “government affairs chair for the Utah Apartment Association and on the executive board of the National Association of Real Property Managers.”
The younger Cullimore said renters aren’t the only ones confused by the federal mandates; lawyers and property managers are too, and are trying to comply as best they can.
“This is federal law trying to step on state law,” he said. “Until local courts make a decision on how to do it, attorneys all across the nation are trying to do their best to make federal law work with state law.”
The CDC’s Sept. 4 moratorium on evictions allows such action to be deferred for certain low-income renters who would otherwise have to move in with others or become homeless. The order doesn’t cancel a tenant’s debt for back rent, but it does provide a temporary lifeline.
The CDC noted that a census survey found “32% of renters reported that they would move in with friends or family members upon eviction,” increasing the likelihood of the spread of the virus.
“Household contacts are estimated to be 6 times more likely to become infected by an index case of COVID-19 than other close contacts,” the order reads.
While the CDC called out the danger, it also left enforcement largely up to state and local courts.
Marty Blaustein, a lawyer with Utah Legal Services, worries about how courts will decide if renters should be liable for fees they incur while under the CDC order. He’s most concerned about the “treble” damages allowed under state law, that commonly means a tripling of the amount of rent owed by defendants.
“Yes, you have to pay your rent, but you shouldn’t have to pay all these additional fees,” Blaustein said. “You shouldn’t get treble damage when you are complying with a CDC order, which is trying to stop the spread of the virus.”
Todd of the Cullimore firm, however, points out the CDC order allows for collecting of related rental fees, unlike the previous CARES Act restriction.
“You’d have to ask the CDC why they allow late fees during the moratorium,” Todd said.
It’s also true the federal law is silent as to how it might apply to Utah’s unique treble damages provision.
That’s bad news for Haylie Cordes, who filed a CDC declaration Oct. 7 to halt eviction from her landlord, Real Property Management Northern Utah.
Since that filing, her landlord has repeatedly imposed $10 late fees for back rent totaling $471 as of Nov. 25. She also had an “eviction cancellation fee” of $365 posted to her account, payable to the Cullimore law firm. The firm didn’t file any dismissal of charges, according to court records, so it’s unclear what the fee is for. Todd of the Cullimore firm said it was for court filing costs and attorney fees, but the total does not match the firm’s typical fees and was not specified in the actual eviction complaint against Cordes.
With her parents deceased and her stepfather in supportive housing after suffering a stroke, Cordes said she is out of options.
“I’m already so deep in debt,” Cordes said. “I don’t even know how to get out of bed sometimes.”
The way Alieza Durana of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University sees it, the CARES Act helped pump the brakes on evictions nationwide but was less effective in some regions, like the South and Midwest.
“That’s in part due to the fact the CARES Act had no teeth,” Durana said. “There was no one coming behind to ensure that landlords were doing evictions properly or justly.”
She said data from more than 100,000 evictions in 25 U.S. cities shows after the CARES Act eviction ban ended in late July and before the CDC moratorium of Sept. 4, new eviction filings flooded the courts.
“In that window, we saw a massive spike in eviction filings, far beyond historical averages,” Durana said. “It was very alarming.”
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reviewed state court filings and found a similar trend.
In the first three months of the year, Utah courts averaged 552 filings a month. But when eviction bans took effect during the next three months, from April to June, the monthly average plummeted to 240.
Filings stayed low through July, when the federal unemployment ran out. Then, in August, before the new moratorium kicked in, filings bounced back up to 591, then dropped again with the CDC’s September order.
Nearly two-thirds of the filings during that August spike — 376 — came from one firm: The Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore.
Cullimore Jr. said evictions are down this year by 40% overall because of the pandemic. He also pushed back on the idea that evictions are the firm’s goal.
The truth “doesn’t make for as salacious a story [but] our efforts are to represent our clients holistically,” Cullimore said. “And evictions pretty much always result in a financial loss for my clients and so our goal is to help them avoid evictions.”
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project spoke with 102 renters evicted by the Cullimore firm, the majority of whom said the firm showed little interest in working with them. That includes more than a dozen renters evicted during the pandemic.
Shelley Allen received an eviction notice from Aspira at Anthem in Herriman in April after the state ordered its ban on evictions for those economically affected by COVID-19. Allen said she lost her job and was already walking a desperate path struggling with addiction and raising three small children on her own after their father died by suicide in 2019.
As she attempted to negotiate late payment of rent while waiting on a Social Security check, she was evicted and locked out of her apartment. Allen provided copies of emails to a reporter showing she had been communicating with management about how the pandemic affected her employment. The landlord did not accept the documentation she provided and asked for official proof of job loss.
In an affidavit justifying the eviction, an apartment manager stated: “Governor Herbert’s April 1, 2020 Executive Order does not apply to Defendant as Defendant has failed to communicate to Plaintiff that Defendant has suffered a loss of wages or job loss as a result of COVID-19.”
Allen was later arrested on drug charges, lost custody of her children and has now found shelter, she says, in a drug treatment facility.
“It’s been impossible to get back on my feet,” Allen said.
Kayleigh Allred and Hayden Finley had been struggling to get by at their place at Cascade Springs in West Jordan. The pandemic and lost wages were their most urgent concerns, far outweighing a minor tiff with a neighbor, who complained about their dog to the property manager.
While struggling to secure paychecks, they had lined up a rent payment from their Latter-day Saint bishop. Allred said the landlord refused to accept it.
On Sept. 16, the Cullimore law firm filed an eviction complaint in West Jordan’s 3rd District Court, and, on Sept. 29, Judge L. Douglas Hogan issued the “Order of Restitution,” giving them three days to vacate the property.
Finley said the couple filed a CDC declaration to halt the eviction but said property managers countered by claiming the protection didn’t apply because they were being evicted for not cleaning up after their dog and for having unauthorized occupants, not for failure to pay rent.
Their lease agreement stated that they could be penalized $200 for not cleaning up after the animal, but they never received a bill for such a fee. The eviction notice arrived, coincidentally, after they failed to make rent at the first of September.
The couple, their 2-year-old son and dog were locked out of their townhome and moved in with family. Allred, who said she is expecting a baby in March, said they were fighting to retrieve all their belongings, and she had just been released from the hospital due to a bad kidney infection.
“I have no clothes, I have no food,” Allred said, “all of my important paperwork is in there — my ultrasounds, everything.”
Todd of the Cullimore firm said the couple’s lease violations were well documented and the landlord tried to work with them.
“Our client bent over backwards working with them to get their items out of the unit,” Todd said, adding “again, none of the residents filed anything with the court to challenge any of the allegations made in the complaint.”
A rock and a harder place
It’s unclear if most judges even hear information in conflict with a landlord’s claims.
Utah’s legal system churns out evictions with little resistance. The speed, Blaustein pointed out, means few tenants have time to get a lawyer even if they could afford one, and usually have no backing in court to help regardless of state and federal mandates meant to assist them.
Indeed, only 7% of Utah renters had an attorney advocate on their behalf in 2020, according to state court data.
Micah Palmer was already facing a difficult 2020. The first of the year, she fixated on the upcoming murder trial against two men who had brutally killed her adult son four years earlier during a home invasion.
To her relief, the two were convicted, but the trauma affected Palmer’s work as a photographer and then the pandemic shut down her regular busy season shooting wedding and graduation photos.
The CARES Act deferred her eviction but as soon as it expired July 25, she said, the Cullimore law firm pounced with “claws out” and filed a three-day eviction notice. Luckily, she said she was able to find an attorney who held the firm to the 30-day notice and that gave her time to find rental assistance and work out a payment plan and stay in her apartment.
But she has bitter feelings toward the law firm that makes much of its income from evictions.
“They’re definitely not in the business of helping people or having empathy, that’s for sure,” Palmer said. “It was a hard, hard, stressful thing. And if they had some empathy or would speak to you like a normal person, that would have helped a lot.”
Here are groups that can offer help to offer renters in disputes with landlords or with different types of assistance:
Utah Housing Coalition, utahhousing.org, 801-364-0077
Utah Legal Services, utahlegalservices.org, 801-328-8891
Utah Community Action, utahca.org/housing-case-management/, 801-359-2444