Robert Gehrke: Utah’s predatory rental practices need a fresh look

This reporting effort uncovered abuses that must change.

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

Over the past several months, Eric Peterson and a team of reporters from the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, have been digging deep — real deep — into Utah’s eviction laws.

What they’ve found paints a grim picture of a system that is stacked overwhelmingly in favor of landlords with penalties and fees and interest rates charged to renters that can only be described as predatory and abusive.

The work is too exhaustive to summarize, but some highlights of what their investigation revealed include:

• In Utah, renters are only required to receive 72 hours notice before being evicted, the shortest notice in the nation, leaving little time to arrange to move belongings and line up a new place to live;

• Utah is one of just four states (Montana, Nevada and Idaho are the others) where renters who are evicted are on the hook to pay triple the amount of rent they owe, plus attorney fees. On top of that, they are charged high rates of interest (24% annually in many leases) up to 40% if the matter goes to collections;

• Peterson and the reporting team identified instances where years later landlords came back and tried to collect additional damages in apparent violation of a Utah law passed in 2020 that restricts claims to 180 days;

• Last year, the Utah Apartment Association successfully fought a bill that simply required landlords to provide a clear disclosure of fees that renters would be charged;

• The association also resisted suggestions that they translate critical rental documents into a language the renter might be able to understand. “We are an English only state,” association president Paul Smith wrote in an email obtained by the reporters;

• In 93% of eviction cases, their analysis found, the renter is not represented by an attorney.

Utah is also doing less than many states to soften the pandemic hardship on renters and landlords alike. A recent study by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that Utah has some of the worst pandemic housing laws in the country. On a scale from 0 to 5, Utah was scored 0.5, having just one of 25 optimal policies in place — housing stabilization funds designed to help a renter stay in his or her apartment.

But the imbalance existed before the pandemic and will exist after.

Recently the Justice Lab, a project at the University of Utah law school, was asked by the People’s Legal Aid — a new group to designed to help renters understand their legal rights — to distill the problem down to its essence.

“As a new nonprofit, People’s Legal Aid hoped to partner with students to produce a fact-based report that could be used to educate tenants and community stakeholders while informing the organization’s legal strategy as it represents defendants in eviction lawsuits,” said Angela McGuire, assistant director at People’s Legal Aid.

The imbalance begins with the fundamental power dynamic in the tenant-landlord relationship: If you need a roof over your head, especially in Utah’s Speedo-tight housing market, you are in no position to negotiate.

That assumes you have the sophistication to negotiate. The leases used by many landlords are so dense, the actual meaning of the verbiage so opaque, the ordinary Utahn wouldn’t be able to unpack them.

But if one could — as the Justice Lab did — it quickly becomes clear that tenants are frequently signing away the minuscule protections Utah law affords them.

Utah has the weakest tenant protections in the region. There is the 72-hour notice I mentioned before along with the onerous damages, fines, fees and interest. And there is no requirement that fees be disclosed, nor a renter’s legal rights.

Those provisions are all covered in the statutes in many surrounding states.

Utah also doesn’t prevent renters from unknowingly signing away their statutory rights or prevent landlords from inserting unreasonable terms into an agreement. For example, landlords can — and do — include clauses that let them enter an apartment at any time without notice, or seize any property an evicted renter can’t remove from a unit and sell it to offset rent that is owed.

Those leases and, to an extent, Utah laws have been shaped by one family.

The Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore handles an astonishing 45% of evictions statewide. It’s a one-stop shop for landlords, from providing leases whereby tenants waive legal protections and agree to often exorbitant fees to filing evictions to collecting on debts for back-rent, damages and attorneys fees.

The son of the firm’s founder is Kirk Cullimore Jr., a state senator from Cottonwood Heights, a member of Senate Republican leadership and the government affairs chair for the Utah Apartment Association. He has been instrumental in shaping tenant-landlord legislation

It’s a brazen conflict of interest, even by Utah’s anything-goes standards.

I don’t want to overgeneralize. There are very good landlords and there are very bad tenants. And with more than 824,000 Utahns living in rentals, apartments are a critical part of the state’s housing mix, especially for low- and middle-income Utahns priced out of the current housing market.

But the relationship between tenants and landlords is inherently lopsided, and that inequity is exacerbated by laws that clearly favor landlords and their law firms.

“People are taken advantage of,” said Tara Rollins with the Utah Housing Coalition. “We need to get this in balance so, No. 1, people can be successful and, No. 2, people can achieve home ownership. When you are financially crippling somebody it’s hard to get out from under that.”

The Utah Legislature has failed abysmally in finding that balance.

I mentioned before that lawmakers refused last year to pass Rep. Marsha Judkins’ bill requiring a fee disclosure. Landlords are again fighting that basic measure of transparency.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, would strike a provision that lets landlords include clauses in leases that allow them to enter a rental without notice, but that bill has been sitting for nearly half the session waiting for a hearing that seems unlikely to come.

Rather than leaving it in the hands of legislators acting in their own self-interest or those of well-connected landlord lobbyists, Gov. Spencer Cox should appoint an independent task force that can take the rest of this year to identify shortcomings in Utah’s laws.

Start with the issues identified in the Justice Lab report. Then look at what other states have done, whether those policies have worked and if they might yield a more equitable arrangement for Utah renters.

We need a balance, one that protects landlords as well as renters, but the Utah Legislature has proven again and again it is incapable of fulfilling that task.

Editors Note: This column has been updated to include a link to the Justice Lab report and a comment from People’s Legal Aid, which commissioned the report.