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Three ways Utah could reinvent evictions

Utah could use federal funds for eviction prevention programs—instead of just paying landlords’ legal bills.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A small group of people protest the expiration of the housing eviction moratorium on Aug. 2, 2021 at the Utah Capitol.

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.

Every state that received its share of the $46.5 billion in federal Emergency Rental Relief has also designated a certain portion of funds that could be used for special programming to help the most vulnerable — through housing counseling, legal eviction defense, support for seniors and domestic violence victims.

[Related: Is Utah misusing federal funding intended to help renters by paying landlord legal fees?]

Instead, Utah spent nearly $200,000 of those funds paying the legal bills of eviction attorneys — for filing evictions against Utah renters. The state has argued it was necessary to clear debts that renters accrued to prevent evictions, but The Utah Investigative Journalism Project has already reported on multiple Utahns being evicted despite receiving rental assistance.

Critics say this is a poor use of “Housing Stability Funds” when this money could be used to help build eviction systems that are more just. Here’s a look at how eviction diversion programs in other states work.

Talking before suing: The Philadelphia Eviction Diversion Program

While Utah officials have justified paying eviction landlord attorney fees for evictions that were started before rental assistance was sought, the City of Brotherly Love took another approach. Philadelphia requires landlords to take part in mediation with renters and to also apply for federal rental assistance before they can file an eviction in court.

Often the parties agree to payment plans so that renters are not expected to pay off arrears all at once.

Creating a space for mediation — where the renters also have legal counsel to advise them — has led to a 90% success rate in terms of renters either staying in their homes, settling on a repayment plan or coming to an “exit strategy” to leave the apartment at a time that works for them, according to program administrator Sue Wasserkrug.

“It’s unburdening the courts and relieves both of the parties of all the stress of going to court,” Wasserkrug says. “It’s providing some certainty and stability for the parties.”

Not everyone Zooms: Ingham County, Michigan

The 55th District Court Eviction Diversion Program in Ingham County, Mich., also incorporates legal and social services on-site at the court for renters facing eviction. A report of the program from 2012 to 2017 found it helped reduce eviction filings by 10% and increased case dismissals by 36%.

Samantha Bigelow, the chief clerk of the court’s civil division, says the program provides renters more flexibility during the pandemic by adding an extra hearing availability for renters over the video conferencing software Zoom. Since many renters facing eviction may not have access to a computer or working internet, the program allows renters to miss this first hearing and not go into default.

“They’re given a second opportunity to appear because the state understands that not everyone has the ability to appear by Zoom,” Bigelow says.

Meetups and fliers: The Durham North Carolina Eviction Diversion Program

The Durham Eviction Diversion Program was started in 2017, so it was well equipped for when the pandemic hit. The state also streamlined its application process. In July and August, the state had disbursed $200 million in rental assistance and currently is no longer taking new rental assistance applications. By comparison, Utah has disbursed $67 million out of $193 million in funds as of Oct. 1.

A 2019 report on the North Carolina program found 69% of diversion participants avoided receiving a judgment against them and 23% settled before a suit was even filed in court.

The Durham program is a standout for its diversion efforts. Like other programs, it offers representation through Legal Aid and professors and students of Duke University’s law school.

Jesse McCoy, a professor of law at the Duke Civil Justice Clinic, touts the program’s effective outreach. The Durham program holds weekly meetups where renters can come ask legal questions, apply for assistance or check on the status of their applications.

Eviction notices also come with a one-page, back and front flier letting renters know about all the resources available to them, including the diversion program. McCoy says that, initially, the court was reticent to appear to be advocating for the renter, so the program had to point out how the legal system is already tilted heavily in favor of landlords.

“The court system always wants to be neutral,” McCoy says. “Our advice to them was that ‘business as usual’ is already lacking neutrality.”

If you are experiencing eviction, please consider visiting evictedinutah.com. This website can explain your rights and refer you to local legal and advocacy groups that can help your situation and help you find further resources.

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project is a nonprofit that partners with newspapers and broadcast media on in-depth stories to help bolster these institutions’ historic role as watchdogs of government and defenders of the poor and oppressed. Consider a donation.

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