Utah eviction law means harsh potential consequences for a growing number of people

Landlords across the state filed more than 2,600 eviction cases in the first four months of 2023. That’s 40% more than the first quarter of 2022 and more than double the number of eviction lawsuits filed in the first four months of 2021.

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Keith got two eviction notices at his first apartment in Salt Lake City within a few months.

Neither was for nonpayment of rent, he said, but both made him feel disliked and left him with just three days to remedy an issue.

Utah’s eviction process moves quickly and is confusing, said Danielle Stevens, executive director of People’s Legal Aid Utah.

More people are facing that process now than in the past five years, according to data provided by the Utah Rental Housing Association.

Landlords across the state filed more than 2,600 eviction cases in the first four months of 2023.

That’s 40% more than the first quarter of 2022 and more than double the number of eviction lawsuits filed in the first four months of 2021. It’s also higher than pre-pandemic eviction levels going back to at least 2017.

Tenant advocates and landlords agree on the likely cause — the end of pandemic-era emergency rent relief, for which the state closed applications in early February.

They disagree, though, on whether the trend will continue.

Jacob Kent, a staff attorney and the housing task force chair with Utah Legal Services, believes things will get worse for renters.

Paul Smith, who heads the Utah Rental Housing Association, thinks the current trend is fallout from people becoming reliant on rent relief and will correct itself.

Researchers say it’s hard to predict what will happen without ongoing federal assistance, especially as rent continues to increase.

Highest average monthly filing rate in years

Eviction filings dropped sharply around the start of the pandemic in April 2020. They remained low for the rest of the year other than August, when landlords filed 671 lawsuits.

Landlords filed 2,269 fewer eviction lawsuits in 2020 than in 2019, and that number dropped by another 245 cases in 2021.

A recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute credits that decrease to federal legislation that established eviction moratoriums, rental assistance and other financial assistance to households.

Numbers were starting to increase again in 2022, and the lowest number of eviction lawsuits filed in any month last year was 420.

The increase corresponded with a phase-out in federal assistance, the Gardner report from Jim Wood and Max Becker says.

There were 1,813 more eviction lawsuits filed in 2022 as the pandemic recovery continued, though numbers didn’t hit pre-pandemic rates.

That changed in the first quarter of 2023. Landlords filed 2,643 evictions between January and April, an average of 661 eviction lawsuits per month.

That’s a higher rate and a higher number of filings than any quarter to start the year since at least 2017.

Renters are ‘basically falling off a cliff’ without rent relief

Stevens, Kent and Smith agreed the spike is because of emergency rental assistance running out.

Without that federal money available, Stevens said, people are “basically falling off a cliff” because there’s nowhere near as much help. “The rental assistance that Utah provided is the most money this state has ever gotten to provide that kind of help,” she said.

That might not include money available through charities and religious organizations, she said, but many people aren’t comfortable approaching those sources for help anyway.

Kent agreed renters went from having millions and millions of dollars in possible relief available to not having much at all.

While Stevens and Kent foresee the situation getting worse, Smith — who speaks for Utah’s landlords — thinks it will level out.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Padilla Vega, executive director of the Utah Equality Coalition protests the expiration of the housing eviction moratorium Aug. 2, 2021 at the Utah Capitol. Evictions in Utah have shot up since government rental assistance ended in February.

Federal rent relief was good, he said, but also meant people got used to having the aid and stopped doing what they needed to do to eventually start making rent payments on their own again.

“Instead of getting back into the job market or getting their spending under control, many of those people became reliant on 18 months of the government paying their rent,” Smith said. “Once we clear that group out, then we’re just back to the only people being evicted are the usual suspects.”

Smith said Utah’s strong economy is another reason the rental association isn’t predicting a big uptick.

He acknowledged people might have to make adjustments like finding roommates, but said people who want a job can find one.

Lower rate, but more severe consequences than other states

Smith also stressed Utah has a low eviction rate compared to other states.

The Gardner report confirms that, with Utah ranking in the bottom 10 states for eviction rate and the filing rate.

Wood, the Ivory-Boyer Senior Fellow at Gardner, said researchers have discussed why and observed it’s partially because of aid available through the religious and philanthropic communities.

For example, bishops with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, and tenants also can get help through Utah Community Action, the YWCA and other organizations. People can find help near them through 211utah.org/.

Smith added around half of eviction lawsuits are resolved and an estimated 51% end in actual eviction and a financial judgment.

When those financial judgments happen, though, they are more severe than in most other states, Wood said.

He and Becker wrote the state bar reports Utah is the only state to combine a three-day notice period with treble damages — triple the daily rent from the expiration of the initial eviction notice until the tenant actually leaves the rental unit.

Many people end up thousands more dollars in debt than they started with, Stevens said, especially because the debt accrues interest while landlords, attorneys or collection agencies sometimes wait years to collect. They have up to six years to file a debt lawsuit, she said.

Some people come to People’s Legal Aid once they’re already seeing garnished wages, Stevens said, and they don’t know why.

People’s stress from eviction ‘may shut them down’

Confusion is common among people facing eviction, Stevens said, and most people don’t understand what’s happening.

Panic sets in because of the stress of potentially losing the roof over their head, Kent said.

“A lot of times, that stress may shut them down,” he said.

Smith said while people talk a lot about fight or flight, people facing eviction often choose a third “f:” Freeze.

“They just bury their heads in the sand and let this happen to them,” he said.

Keith understands the feeling of being overwhelmed. The Tribune is using only his first name because of the stigma that accompanies eviction.

He’s only received notices from apartments in Salt Lake City. Unlike an eviction lawsuit, a notice doesn’t go on someone’s record and can’t result in treble damages.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Keith, who is not identified by his last name, stands in front of a Salt Lake City apartment on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, from which he received two eviction notices within a few months. The eviction process can be overwhelming, he said. “You can’t recollect what’s going on when you’re that far down."

But even the notices seemed like quite a threat and caused confusion.

The first happened a few days after he moved his belongings in after having them shipped from Billings, Mont., where he tried to relocate after an eviction in Mississippi.

He still doesn’t know why he was evicted from the rental in his home state, but it prevented him from getting housing in Billings, and he used a co-signer in Salt Lake City.

The first notice here was for bothering neighbors, he said, though it didn’t pinpoint his exact actions. He recalled sharing dinner with a neighbor and her friend in a common space at the apartment complex after she loaned him a dolly to move in and other interactions that seemed benign to him. But he said he isn’t sure what caused it.

“It hit me in the heart,” Keith said.

Three days isn’t a long enough notice, he said. The judge in Mississippi gave him a week to vacate the apartment.

Keith added eviction knocks down people who are already in the dumps.

“You can’t recollect what’s going on when you’re that far down,” he said.

The stress can make it impossible to come to simple decisions, said Kent, of Utah Legal Services, and a lot of people get stuck with a judgment order and damages that haunt them for years.

Get help as soon as possible

There’s help available so tenants don’t have to make decisions on their own, and people with organizations that assist tenants recommend reaching out sooner rather than later.

People’s Legal Aid is focusing on trying to catch people before their landlord files a lawsuit, Stevens said.

Tenants don’t always handle negotiations with landlords productively, she said.

“They’re in crisis,” Stevens said. “They’re not understanding what’s happening to them.”

Services through PLA can help people wade through legal language and use the appropriate words and tone in their responses, she said.

Landlords are willing to work with tenants, Smith said, and they want to avoid evictions. He said he doesn’t know of many people who try to communicate. His impression is that most ignore their landlord and potential resources.

Kent said there’s a mix of landlords who will and won’t work with tenants but added a lot would be willing to work with tenants if they reached out. He does hear anecdotally that some landlords are hard to reach.

Once people are facing an eviction lawsuit or debt collection, they can’t freeze, regardless of the stress or fear, Stevens said.

“This process moves so fast,” Stevens said. “It is in your best interest to get legal help as soon as possible.”

Tenants need realistic expectations of the legal system

There are few defenses, she said, and things get worse as people get further along in the process.

In most cases, Stevens said, the best an attorney can do is mitigate financial damage, help the tenant understand the process and minimize the trauma of engaging with the legal system.

People need to have realistic expectations about what will happen if they go to court. A lot of the tenants People’s Legal Aid works with think they’re going to tell a judge their story and get a ruling in their favor, she said, but that doesn’t happen if there’s no legal defense.

“What feels morally right isn’t always reflected in the law,” Stevens said.

When there is a resolution, it’s often a move-out date, Kent said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bryn Spielvogel protests the expiration of the housing eviction moratorium Aug. 2, 2021 at the Utah Capitol. Housing experts advise tenants not to freeze in fear if they are evicted, and to move quickly in finding legal aid.

It’s incredibly frustrating for attorneys and makes them feel helpless, he said, because they know there isn’t much more they can do.

“At the end of the day, if there is no resolution or no way to help the tenant keep a roof over their head, you know the next step is that they’re going to be on the streets,” he said.

‘Pretty small’ recent improvements, but could build

It comes down to Utah’s laws about eviction, Kent said, because they’re written strictly and have severe consequences.

There are few protections for tenants, he said, and the law is essentially designed to help landlords get someone out and another tenant in -- even if the issue is temporary.

Stevens agreed organizations can’t “lawyer our way out of deeply ingrained systemic issues,” including rising rents, stagnant wages, low affordable housing stock and the reality of the state’s eviction laws.

Policies that other states have embraced to assist renters, such as rent control and inclusionary zoning, are not allowed in Utah.

Smith contended Utah’s laws are “amazing” and help renters.

He added recent laws have been a win-win for landlords and tenants. He pointed specifically to House Bill 359, which the Utah Legislature passed in 2022.

That amendment to the law governing eviction records streamlines the expungement process by allowing tenants to have their cases sealed if they’ve paid the balance and the landlord agrees.

Kent pointed to that law as a small step forward along with others, such as a law reducing the amount of days in rent a tenant facing relationship violence must pay to get out of a lease and another requiring landlords to disclose all fees during the application process.

“It is pretty small stuff, but with these issues, we really need to try to have some foresight and consider the long term and what a lot of small things can do to build up to a larger thing,” Stevens said.