Utah laws are stacked against renters who struggle to get by. Robert Gehrke explains why that could change.

A report from the Utah Bar Foundation highlighted the challenges debtors face navigating the Utah legal system and recommended changes to streamline and balance the process.

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

Some six decades ago, author and activist James Baldwin wrote: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” It’s no less true today.

A recent report broke down how Utah’s legal system exacerbates the obstacles faced by our neighbors who are just trying to scrape by.

The study by the Utah Bar Foundation details how those who are the subject of a debt collection or small claims lawsuit find themselves in a confusing, and sometimes contradictory process, almost always without the benefit of an attorney’s aid — which makes sense when you think about it, because if you can’t afford rent, you’re not going to be able to hire a lawyer.

Those that do contest the proceedings — after attorneys’ fees and interest get tacked on — often end up worse off than those who just don’t bother to show up and get a default judgment.

Half of the small claims cases in the courts are filed by just nine businesses — all payday lenders.

But it’s Utah’s onerous eviction laws that really stand out. The report notes that Utah is one of just three states that require renters to vacate a premise within three days or face penalties that are triple the rent owed. Utah is the only state that makes those penalties mandatory, rather than giving some discretion to a judge.

And what are the results? Well, it means that someone getting evicted has as little as 72 hours to pack all of their stuff and find somewhere to live — a difficult feat where the vacancy rate for rentals in Salt Lake County is below 2%. And that presumes that someone who has fallen behind on their rent will have the resources to put down the necessary deposit and first month of rent most places require.

Or, if they stay beyond the three days, the landlord can collect triple the daily rent — again, from someone who doesn’t have the money to pay the rent in the first place.

Then, if they end up in court, things can get even worse. The Utah Bar Foundation report notes that the average delinquency leading to eviction was $640 in 2019. But by the time a case reached a judgment — because of the hefty damages assessed — the median judgment shot up to $4,070 in 26 days, the average period between an eviction filing and a judgment. And then, after all that, they get 24% interest tacked on until the judgment is paid.

In short, Utah makes it very, very expensive to be poor.

Every time I write about these issues, I get emails from landlords sharing their personal horror stories with deadbeat tenants — and I’m sure they exist, just like there are deadbeat landlords or lenders. It should also be noted that Utah’s eviction rate is low compared to neighboring states.

But there will always be people who lose a job or have an unexpected medical crisis or get trapped in the payday loan vortex.

When that happens, we make people navigate a complex and intimidating legal system, usually on their own, and impose heavy-handed punishment on those least able to afford it.

In essence, rather than throwing a lifeline to people drowning in debt, we toss them an anchor.

But maybe, just maybe, there is hope for some change.

Two Utah House members, Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, and Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, are assembling a working group to study ways to improve the system and provide better outcomes to all parties involved.

The Bar Foundation offers several potential reforms, like encouraging parties to engage in mediation in hopes of settling out of court; focusing resources on rural parts of the state with some of the highest rates of debt collection cases; making the process simpler so untrained parties can navigate it without an attorney; and to consider changing how attorneys fees are awarded.

“I’ve known of these issues for two years and I think the general public has been suffering from these issues for longer,” Bennion told me. “But I think this is a great report and I think we have the best hope working together to do some good.”

The working group will have its first meeting next month, and their efforts are worth watching. Getting people on the same page won’t be easy, but if they are able to deliver, it could provide some measure of balance to our laws and produce a streamlined process, focused on fairness and not on punishing people for being poor.