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Is Utah misusing federal funding intended to help renters by paying landlord legal fees?

While Utah has disbursed about $67 million to pay back rent and future rent for Utahns facing eviction, it has also given over $183,000 to landlords from the Housing Stability Services fund.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Beamer, pictured with her daughter Layla, 3, on Monday, Oct. 11, was evicted from her Holladay apartment a short time after she discovered a camera hidden in a tree by her landlord and pointed at her bedroom window. Managers told her it was intended to monitor suspicious activity, but they removed it following her complaint.

The following story was supported by The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Ashley Beamer was walking her dog outside her Holladay apartment one night last April when the light from her phone reflected off something strange in the tree above her. A closer look showed it was a camouflage video camera, the motion-activated kind hunters might use to track game.

This camera happened to be pointed at the window of her bedroom, where she slept, dressed and played with her 2-year-old daughter, according to photos she submitted with a lawsuit.

[Related: Three ways Utah could reinvent evictions]

“It wasn’t facing the cars that were getting broken into; it was pointed directly at my bedroom window,” Beamer said.

Apartment management told her it was intended to monitor “suspicious activity,” but they removed it after she discovered it and complained. Two weeks later, she was informed that her lease wouldn’t be renewed and was given a notice of eviction despite earlier assurances that the lease would be extended. Ashley’s father, Richard, lived in another unit at the complex and also had his name on his daughter’s lease. He also faced eviction. Richard, 71, was outraged and filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff, alleging the apartment broke the lease because the camera violated his daughter’s right to “peaceful use of the apartment.”

As the case was progressing, however, the Beamers remained in their apartments, and Ashley racked up “treble damages” — three times the regular rent as allowed by Utah law — for the time she stayed past her lease while they battled in court. Ashley didn’t have a job or any income at the time, so she was surprised when the apartment managers offered to help her apply for federal rent relief through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

In August, Ashley received an email with two documents: one she would sign to receive federal assistance to pay back rent, the other was a stipulated agreement to settle the eviction. Signing this second document would not only commit her to a payment plan of $5,408 but also would force her to drop the invasion of privacy counterclaim arising from the hidden camera. The email came from the Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore, the firm that files nearly half the evictions in Utah and counts powerful Republican state Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr. as a partner with his father, the firm’s founder and namesake.

Not only was the Cullimore firm asking her to drop the harassment claim in order to get rent assistance, but they were also asking her to sign off on having federal assistance pay their legal fees to boot.

“The second document settles the eviction and is what we submit to the State to request payment for court costs and attorney fees in addition to the rent request being submitted,” the email read. “Without that, we would not consider the case settled, and you would be responsible for the court costs and attorney fees.”

The Cullimore missive went on to say Ashley needed to decide “ASAP.”

“This has to be submitted before vacate date of 8/16 or we will no longer be able to submit for assistance.”

Beamer relented and signed. To this day, she still does not know if the federal assistance came through and, if it did, whether it covered all she owed or if she would still be on the hook for thousands. And she still had to leave her apartment.

The law firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Her father remains astounded by the tactics of the landlord and the Cullimore law firm.

“This emergency rental assistance is not being used to keep tenants in their apartments,” Richard Beamer said. “They are kicking them out with it and the money is going to the landlords.”

While Utah has disbursed roughly $67 million to pay back rent and future rent for Utahns facing eviction, as of September the state had also given over $183,000 to landlords from a dedicated fund of rental assistance moneys called “Housing Stability Services.”

According to treasury guidelines, these funds are meant to help renters “keep or obtain housing,” and can be spent by states on services like housing counseling, support for seniors, persons with disabilities, victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable populations. The guidelines say the funds can also be spent on “attorney’s fees related to eviction proceedings and maintaining housing stability.”

Instead of using any of those funds to support vulnerable renters as intended, Utah has used all of those Housing Stability Services funds to pay eviction-related legal bills for landlords’ attorneys.

The U.S. Treasury Department told the Utah Investigative Journalism Project that these funds could be spent on legal bills defending against evictions.

“Emergency Rental Assistance funds are intended to help tenants obtain or maintain housing,” Treasury spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a written statement. “If any state or locality uses these funds for purposes not allowed by the statute and Treasury’s guidance, we would expect them to repay the federal government.”

Landlords, ‘That’s who we have to satisfy’

Department of Workforce Services Deputy Director Nate McDonald said he is baffled at the idea that these funds are meant to be used to defend renters against evictions.

“That helps the tenant but it doesn’t help the landlord; That’s who we have to satisfy to end the eviction,” McDonald said, referring to landlords.

Any legal expenses racked up by property owners in an eviction need to be paid off with the federal funds, along with the renter assistance, in order for the tenant to have a “clean slate” and be allowed to remain in their housing, he said.

Workforce Services worked out this program with a group of stakeholders including the Utah Apartment Association, the lobby that represents landlords, housing advocates, partner agencies and multiple eviction attorneys including the Cullimore firm. (Kirk Cullimore Sr. is also on the Apartment Association’s board of directors.)

The state only requires landlords to submit a note saying the amount of the legal expense they are seeking reimbursement for as part of the rental assistance application. These filings are monitored, McDonald said, to ensure they remain in the appropriate range for average evictions. The state will require further documentation if any red flags are detected.

Utah is committed to being flexible so as not to bog down the program with paperwork that would slow the distribution of funds and, thus, the recovery, McDonald said.

“As a state, we have to find that right balance so that we don’t overcomplicate it but that we verify and document what we need to protect the program against fraud,” McDonald said.

Diane Yentel is the president and CEO of the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., which has been monitoring the disbursement of Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds. She was struck by Utah’s use of the housing stability funds.

“That’s outrageous,” Yentel said. “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of a program using funds so clearly counter to their intended purpose.”

Nationwide, the coalition estimates only about $8.5 billion of the $46.5 billion authorized by Congress in emergency rental assistance has been spent or obligated.

She notes some states have tripped over unnecessary red tape, while many communities struggle to get landlords to participate.

“The main issue with slow ERA spending is that many programs aren’t following Treasury’s guidance and are not adopting best practices in their programs,” Yentel said. She said Treasury has strongly encouraged these funds be spent in setting up diversion programs to keep evictions out of the courts. Matthew Desmond, founder and principal investigator of Princeton’s Eviction Lab explained at a White House Eviction Prevention Summit in July that successful diversion requires the three A’s — Advocacy, Assistance and an Alternative to eviction such as mediation.

He pointed to the example of the Homestart program in Boston that provides legal advocacy to renters and, through mediation and counseling, has managed to keep “95% of their clients in their homes two years later.”

“It’s [an] incredibly encouraging result from a very simple intervention,” he said.

Similar research has shown the power of legal advocacy for those facing eviction. A study in New York City found 86% of tenants with counsel remained in their homes. A San Francisco study found 67% of renters with full representation stayed in their homes, with the city seeing a 10% decrease in eviction filings from 2018 to 2019 because of its “right to counsel program.”

Utah’s payments to landlord lawyers are a poor use of those funds, Yentel said, but allowed that it could be acceptable under Treasury rules if it actually keeps people in housing.

McDonald said the system does prevent evictions because both the landlord and renter have to sign off on it.

“If they are receiving ERA funds then they cannot [evict the renter for nonpayment of rent],” McDonald said. “That would be against the law.”

Late fees

Michelle Day’s eviction hit her “like a whirlwind.” As a single mother raising a special needs teenage son and a 9-year-old daughter while working the long hours of a home caregiver, life was hectic enough before she was ousted from her home.

The eviction forced her to give up the family dog, cat and a pet snake named Hades while they crashed with friends generous enough to let her small family cram into spare rooms. The family lived out of storage for two months and she still can’t find important belongings like her daughter’s Social Security card or her temple recommend for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The “whirlwind” turned everything in her life upside down, but the worst part was the eviction itself — filed against her for allegedly owing $100 in late fees. The eviction complaint against her shows she didn’t owe any back rent at the time of filing.

Day disputed the charge but her landlord told her she would be able to apply for rental assistance on her behalf. This aid would more than cover her obligations but she would have to sign a settlement to get it, she was told. When she refused to sign the settlement that she considered onerous, she received a terse email from the Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore.

“Without a signed stipulated agreement, we cannot request court costs and attorney’s fees to be paid by the State,” the email read, adding the firm would submit the assistance application regardless.

After not signing the settlement, she was compelled to leave her home, and yet she is still getting notices about new fees and damages the landlord claims she owes despite having received the federal assistance.

“It feels like misappropriation of government funds to me,” Day said. “But what do I know, I’m just a lowly caregiver.”

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