GOP lawmakers kill proposal aimed at curbing renter evictions

“Many landlords can’t see 90 days into the future,” an evictions lawyer tells a House committee as the 90-day notice measure fails.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People protest the possible eviction of renters at 379 E 1st Ave (Hawthorne House) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. On Thursday, GOP legislators killed a bill in committee that would have required some landlords to give tenants 90 days notice before eviction.

Utah renters live in fear of it: the dreaded rental increase.

Careful budgeting is quickly upended by a $300 to $400 increase and the renter must figure out either a side gig, a way to bring the grocery bill down or find entirely new accommodations.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, sought to give renters 90 days notice before a rent increase of 10% or $100 took effect. Month-to-month rental agreements would have been excluded.

“The renter has time to decide, ‘am I going to be able to afford this in my budget or not,’” Bennion said. The bill was designed to help decrease evictions, the lawmaker argued, by giving renters faced with steep increases more time to find a new place to live — a task that’s become increasingly tough in a tight rental market.

“Rent increases are a heavy burden on families across the state,” Bennion said. Plus, she noted, “giving a 90-day notice does not cost a landlord anything.”

Maria Zavala helps families apply for rental assistance programs through her work as the family support center manager for Neighborhood House.

On Thursday, Zavala told lawmakers on the House Business and Labor Standing Committee she supported the bill.

When a client recently had her rent bumped from $900 a month to $1,500, Zavala wondered how the woman would afford it when her monthly salary is nearly $31,000 a year. Extra notice would help Zavala and her client, who only received a 30-day notice, fully consider her budget and find a new apartment if needed.

Angela Price, policy director for Salt Lake City’s Community and Neighbors Department, spoke in favor of the bill.

“This bill strikes a good balance of providing tenants with proper notice of a rental increase while preserving a landlord’s ability to adjust rent due to market forces,” Price said.

Salt Lake City is currently working on an anti-displacement plan, Price said, called “Thriving in Place.” The data analysis from the project shows that rental increases are one of the driving causes of displacement in not only Salt Lake City, but across the region, Price noted.

Danny Harris, advocacy director for AARP Utah also spoke in support of the bill, noting that many retirees depend on Social Security for the bulk of their income. “A rent increase can be very difficult for somebody who’s struggling to make that fit into a small cost of living allowance.”

Harris said he’d personally helped people try to find a new apartment after getting priced out and that the process could take a while.

“We appreciate this legislation that would give more Utahns an opportunity to have the time they need to to manage their budgets, find something that works for them and keep a roof over their head at the same time,” Harris said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People protest the possible eviction of renters at 379 E 1st Ave (Hawthorne House) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.

Kirk A. Cullimore spoke against the bill. The Law Offices of Kirk A. Cullimore filed 45% of all eviction lawsuits in Utah in 2020 and their website boasts “we handle more evictions than any other law firm in Utah.” Cullimore is the father of Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, who practices at the same firm.

“Quite frankly we’re a little surprised [this bill] is here today on the committee,” Cullimore said. “There are many problems with this bill extending a 90-day notice.”

“If a landlord has to give a 90-day notice of an increase,” Cullimore said, “but they only have to give a 30-day notice that they’re not going to renew the lease, if they miss that 90-day window, that’s all they’re gonna do. They’re just going to give a 30-day notice that a tenant has to vacate at the end of the lease term rather than be able to negotiate with them for an increase in a rental rate that might give them stability in housing.”

Cullimore seemed to be saying that landlords would rather just give tenants a notice to vacate than notify them that rent would increase in 90 days.

And, Cullimore said, “many landlords can’t see 90 days into the future and know what their vacancy rates are going to be.”

Jeremy Shorts, an evictions attorney in Utah county, also raised concerns over the bill, saying, “My biggest concern is the timelines and how it conflicts with existing leases, contracts and the current statutes.” Shorts appears to be a member attorney at “Kick’em out Quick Evictions & Collections.”

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, noted that while the bill needed more work, he hoped his fellow committee members would pass it. “Members of the Committee we’re dealing with a couple of crises in our state right now,” King said. “One of them is housing affordability. The other one, though, is people experiencing homelessness is significantly on the rise.” King said the bill would move the state in the right direction. “We’ve talked a lot about the need to address these issues in this session and rightly so. If we don’t move the bill forward I want to know what we’re doing in a meaningful way as a legislature to address these issues.”

The bill died in committee, with 11 Republicans voting no, two Democrats voting yes and two Republicans absent.