Will Utah do anything to help struggling renters now that emergency federal money has dried up?

Other states fight to keep assistance programs alive beyond the pandemic.

The following article was funded with support from The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah spent more than $200 million in Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) provided by Congress in 2020. But the state closed down the Utah Rent Relief program on Feb. 5, saying no more applications for assistance would be accepted.

The majority of the funds were used to cover rent for Utahns and their families facing economic insecurity because of the pandemic, while a smaller portion of funds went to administration costs and services for renters like outreach. The money was divided among the state, and large counties and cities to spend.

“We always knew that federal Emergency Rental Assistance would be temporary,” said Christina Davis, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Workforce Services that administered the federal assistance. “And it served a very important role in helping individuals and families to maintain stable housing during the pandemic.”

The program kept Utahns in their homes, but what about now?

It’s the question on the minds of many watching a spike in evictions that has come since the funds have dried up. While the pandemic is subsiding, housing insecurity still runs rampant.

“There was a big surge in rent increases and we didn’t see incomes rise at the same level,” said Sara Gallagher, senior project director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“There’s this great divide between incomes and rents,” Gallagher said, and some agencies in some states recognized that their citizens still needed help. “[They saw] that this is a pot of money that has had high impact and continues to be in need.”

Here’s how other places decided to keep supporting renters.

The rental bank

When the pandemic hit, the state of Connecticut saw an opportunity to resurrect an old program that had been defunct for years by 2020–a rental bank. One that could offer short-term assistance, counseling and other services for renters facing eviction.

“We used to operate a rental bank program many years ago and because of state budget cuts, we had to end the program,” said Leigh Shields-Church, a social worker with the Connecticut Department of Housing.

The program worked with local nonprofits to offer case management services to renters, mediation between renters and their landlords and potentially financial assistance payments to help renters avoid eviction.

And as the pandemic wound down “the legislature continued to see the need for” such services, Shields-Church said.

Initially, lawmakers appropriated $1.5 million for the Connecticut Rent Bank, but then the state was able to collect a reallocation of ERA funds that went unspent by other states, bringing in an additional $11.5 million to fund the rental bank. The fund now can offer up to $5,000 to renters to help pay past-due rent.

The key to getting the extra allocation and the state funding was a strong push to keep offering services to vulnerable residents, said Marina Marmolejo, director of Housing Innovation at the Connecticut Department of Housing.

“Our process never ended,” Marmolejo said. “We’ve been finding new projects and eviction prevention has been one of them.”

Besides continuing eviction prevention services, the state has developed other programs, like funding security deposits for renters in situations where the landlord does not want to keep the renter, offering renters two months of security deposits in finding a new place instead of staying at their current unit. The state also has a new program that links rental assistance to participants in a state job training program.

Finding new funding

Jake Janesch is the senior program manager for rental assistance and homelessness prevention at the United Way of King County in Washington state. The most populous county in the state has long grappled with housing its most vulnerable residents. A recent Housing and Urban Development report found homelessness has increased in the state 10% over the past two years, with a housing official having recently stated that at least 53,500 people experienced homelessness in King County in 2022.

Janesch focused on homelessness prevention for the last six years. Prior to the pandemic, though, he said his organization hit upon the need for eviction prevention. Staff experimented with funding needs, by raising private dollars and then testing out spending effectiveness.

“We would designate like $100,000 for events just for eviction prevention [services] and we saw that funding was spent like within an hour,” Janesch said.

(Ted S. Warren | AP) Apartments in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

Once the pandemic hit and the organization shifted focus from homelessness to helping disburse rental assistance. Janesch said it became clear that providing assistance before a renter winds up on the street was the best way to curb homelessness.

“We got to like the spring of this year and we knew the COVID funds, the ERA dollars, were being spent down and we realized that investing more money in prevention really is the way to stop people from falling into homelessness,” Janesch said.

The new Keep King County House program builds off the old ERA infrastructure but includes new sources of funding. Like Connecticut, the county was able to absorb ERA funds that went unspent by other locations and were reallocated to them. But King County also added new funding, including by increasing county recording fees to be redirected to the eviction prevention programs. For the coming year, it will put a total of $12 million into the new program.

Other support for Utah renters

Tara Rollins, director of the Utah Housing Coalition said that since the funding ran out, her nonprofit and other housing advocates have continued to meet and monitor the eviction situation. She said the coalition is continuing to offer education to renters. The coalition’s renter tool kit will include tips on what to do before, during and after renting and they are also planning on new resources for renters trying to get their deposits back.

The coalition is trying to improve Utah’s eviction expungement law. Still, she said she’s heard no talk of rental assistance funding from the state.

“As soon as [ERA funding] ended there was no plan by the state of Utah to really slow the flow,” of evictions, Rollins said. “There was no exit plan.”

Janesch said having a plan in place and a desire to prevent homelessness in the county made it possible to argue not only for the reallocation of other states’ funds but to also receive more state funding to keep the safety net strung tight and strong in their community.

“We distributed over $200 million at United Way and helped 28,000 households save their housing with this program,” Janesch said. “We realized this needs to be an ongoing support in our community. We need to fight for this to be permanent.”