This landlord should be utterly ashamed, Robert Gehrke writes

After a UVU student was evicted for being suicidal, here are some ways we might keep it from happening again.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Unless you’re vying for the title of “Utah’s Worst Person,” it’s hard to comprehend that your reaction when someone comes to you and tells you a young person is considering suicide would be to evict that person from his or her apartment.

But as my colleague Courtney Tanner has reported, that’s precisely what one Utah Valley University student says her landlord in Orem did to her.

Austyn Sorensen, then an 18-year-old student at the school, battles severe depression and last October, grappling with the pressures of COVID, began to prepare to take her life, writing a letter to her boyfriend and another to her sister.

One of Sorensen’s roommates found the letters in Sorensen’s bedroom and the three roommates tried to confront her about her situation, but Sorensen didn’t want to discuss it. One of the roommates also contacted police and another contacted the landlord, Ventana Student Housing.

Instead of helping, on Oct. 13 Ventana sent Sorensen a notice that she had “vocalized suicidal tendencies” — which, bear in mind, she did not vocalize — causing her roommates “undo [sic] stress and alarm.”

“Alarm” by the way, is probably the appropriate response if you learn someone is suicidal and it’s not “undo” or even undue.

But Ventana said it violated the terms of the lease and gave Sorensen six days to get out — in the middle of a pandemic, mind you.

Sorensen told Tanner in October she panicked and tried to start packing, “but I was shaking so heavily that I couldn’t move anything.” (Tanner tried to get a response from the company, but they did not respond.)

Now Sorensen — as you might imagine — is suing the property management company because under the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords cannot discriminate or retaliate against an individual based on a disability, which includes mental health.

She wants a judge to prohibit Ventana from engaging in similar violations in the future, she wants the company to reinstate her housing, and she is asking for an unspecified amount of damages.

Hopefully Ventana is as prepared to sign a check as it was eager to sign the eviction notice, because the company deserves to pay. A lot.

They abused a young woman at her most vulnerable, a heinous act, not just because she was in the depths of a mental health crisis, but because (and I suspect they knew this) she was a student with nowhere to turn and without the resources to fight back.

The Disability Law Center stepped in to represent Sorensen in her lawsuit, but that was after she had already been forced to move out.

It points to a larger problem with student housing that is particularly acute — but not limited to — Utah Valley University. That’s because UVU, despite being the single largest higher ed institution in the state, with more than 41,000 students, has no student housing.

Yes, many of the students are commuters, but those that aren’t are left vying for apartments with other students, as well as the students at Brigham Young University and the rest of the population of Orem and Provo.

It creates a fundamental power imbalance that exists in all landlord-tenant relationships, but is exacerbated when dealing with young students — a situation landlords can exploit. And if you go read some of the reviews of Ventana online, they come off as far from an ideal host.

So what do we do about it?

The most straightforward solution is probably the most expensive: The Utah Legislature should come up with money to either build dorms at UVU or to buy some of the housing complexes surrounding the school and turn them into dorm space. Maybe this was not essential when it was a scrappy little community college, but those days are long gone.

Second, the school could provide some housing advocacy services to balance the playing field and help students fight if they’re unfairly evicted or have deposits withheld or damage left un-repaired.

Or UVU could take a page from BYU, which requires students who live off-campus to live in school-sanctioned housing.

This comes with its own host of problems, as students writing under the pen names Don Cuspidor and Ben Wheat recently outlined in a piece for the “Prodigal Press,” BYU’s underground student newspaper (also recently profiled by my colleague Tanner). The contracts BYU signs limit student options — further tipping the balance of power towards landlords who benefit from guaranteed demand and reduced incentives to keep units at their best because, where else ya gonna go?

This dynamic is at least in part a failure of these institutions to use their considerable leverage to stand up for students. The threat of losing the school-sanctioned status at either BYU or UVU if, say, you know, hypothetically, a landlord evicts a student for being suicidal might at least make the management company think twice before committing such a travesty.

Or there’s the simplest solution: Property managers can quit acting like callous tyrants.

One last thing: If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. What you should NOT do is evict them from their homes.