Utah eviction law means harsh consequences, and more people face that potential than in years

Landlords across the state filed more than 2,600 eviction cases in the first four months of 2023. That’s up 40% from the same time period in 2022 and higher than pre-pandemic levels going back to at least 2017.

(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, at which he received two eviction notices within a few months. Landlords in Utah filed more than 2,600 eviction cases in the first four months of 2023, the highest total in at least six years.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

More people are facing eviction 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 up 40% from the same time period in 2022 and 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.

Danielle Stevens, executive director of People’s Legal Aid Utah, said people are “basically falling off a cliff” because there’s nowhere near as much help as there was.

Stevens and Jacob Kent of Utah Legal Services foresee the situation getting worse.

But Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Rental Housing Association, thinks it will level out.

People got used to having federal rent relief and stopped doing what they needed to do to eventually start making rent payments on their own again, Smith said. Once those people are evicted, the state will be back to the “usual suspects” facing eviction, he said.

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

Smith stressed Utah has a low eviction rate and that an estimated 51% end in actual eviction and a potential financial judgment.

But when those fines happen, they are more severe than in most other states, said Jim Wood, the Ivory-Boyer Senior Fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

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.

Confusion is common among people facing eviction, Stevens said.

Panic sets in because of the potential to lose the roof over their head, Kent added.

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

All three recommended reaching out to get help as soon as possible -- whether it’s a notice to vacate or a summons and complaint.

Several organizations can help with rent and advice or mediation. Find resources at slc.gov/housingstability/resources-for-rental-assistance-and-eviction-prevention and by calling 211 or visiting 211utah.org.

Legal help is available through People’s Legal Aid and Utah Legal Services and through the Disability Law Center when there’s an issue with fair housing or discrimination.

More advice for people about what to do and information on steps in the process are available at utcourts.gov/en/self-help/categories/housing/landlord/eviction-tenant.html. That information is available in Spanish.

But people need to have realistic expectations about what the system can do, Stevens said.

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

Utah’s laws about eviction are written strictly and have severe consequences, Kent said.

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 H.B. 359, which the Utah Legislature passed in 2022.

That bill 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 bills about tenants facing relationship violence and disclosure of fees.