A U.S. eviction moratorium may help struggling Utahns for the rest of 2020

Utahns struggling to pay their rent due to the pandemic may have gotten a reprieve Tuesday with an order by the Trump administration to bar evictions for most renters for the rest of the year.

The order, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the action was needed to stop the spread of the virus and to avoid having renters wind up in shelters or other crowded living conditions, compounding the crisis.

The moratorium would go further than the eviction ban under the pandemic CARES Act, which covered as many as 12.3 million renters in apartment complexes or single-family homes financed with federally backed mortgages. That provision expired in July, although landlords could not begin eviction proceedings for 30 days.

An advocate for renters in the Beehive State praised the order Wednesday, noting that Utah was well prepared to handle its effects thanks to a $20 million rental assistance program it created early in the COVID crisis. That program was modified last month to let landlords apply directly for assistance on behalf of tenants behind on monthly payments.

June Hiatt, organizer with Utah Renters said it was “incredibly urgent” to protect renters from losing their homes while the risk of coronavirus infection persists.

In light of a lack of affordable housing along the Wasatch Front, said Hiatt, “finding a new place to live isn’t easy. Then you add a global pandemic and trying make sure that you’re observing safe health practices, eviction opens a lot of problems.”

A spokesperson for the Utah Apartment Association, representing landlords, said the order extended protections to “the most vulnerable” tenants in the state’s estimated 300,000 rental units. But he noted that the moratorium lacked any federal money to shield landlords from potential financial harm.

“It frustrates landlords in Utah who think that we don’t have a problem, but we’ll just live in the world that we live in and do the best we can to get funding for it,” said Paul Smith, the association’s executive director.

Under the moratorium, tenants will have to attest to a substantial loss of household income, the inability to pay full rent and best efforts to pay partial rent. Tenants must also stipulate that eviction would be likely to leave them homeless or force them to live with others at close quarters. Forms will be available on the CDC website once the order is published in the Federal Register.

The order provides for criminal penalties for violations, but it does not relieve tenants of their ultimate obligation to pay rent. Smith noted tenants will also remain responsible for late fees, mounting damages and other penalties for non-payment.

The moratorium also applies to those who expect to earn no more than $99,000 this year or who meet other income limits.

Tenant advocacy groups have said millions could face eviction in the coming months without government intervention.

But since the pandemic reached Utah, the state has yet to see a major surge in evictions, with monthly court filings even hovering below where they were this same time last year, court records indicate. Officials credit enriched unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, state and city rental assistance programs and other aid for keeping those numbers low — so far.

A $600 per week unemployment stipend enacted by Congress in March expired in late July.

In the first 10 days of August, landlords nationwide reported taking in 29% less in rent than during the same period in March, according to Rentec Direct, a property management information and tenant screening firm.

But Utah’s landlords have yet to see similar widespread rent delinquencies in the COVID-19 crisis, according to Smith, a trend he said was similarly due to federal and state aid. Utah’s economic recovery from pandemic shutdowns in April and May has also progressed more quickly that other states, judging from key metrics like its unemployment rate.

The state has set aside $20 million for rental aid in June and nearly $19 million of that remains unspent, the state Department of Workforce Services, which administers the program, confirmed Wednesday.

That program will pay up to $2,000 per month for qualifying tenants and, in some cases, can also cover late fees and utility payments, a DWS spokeswoman said. Tenants can learn more by dialing 211, the state’s hotline for information on a wide range of social-assistance programs.

State lawmakers modified the rental assistance program in late August to allow landlords to apply on their tenants’ behalf, with the goal of ensuring no Utahn is evicted for non-payment through the end of the year.

Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and nonprofit agencies in the state are also offering rental aid.

The CDC’s moratorium comes as talks in Washington to renew aspects of the CARES Act, which was passed in March, have proved fruitless. In announcing the edit, the Trump administration took a swipe at Democrats for the impasse in negotiations.

Brian Morgenstern, deputy White House press secretary, said that while congressional Democrats “play games,” President Donald Trump “is helping families overcome unprecedented challenges.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a policy group focused on affordable housing, has welcomed the order but said further action was needed to provide financial relief to struggling renters.

The order “will provide relief from the growing threat of eviction for millions of anxious families,” said Diane Yentel, the coalition’s president, but she called it “a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed.”

The National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords, denounced the moratorium. It said the move addressed the financial needs of neither renters nor landlords and would be particularly harmful to small landlords.

“Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” said Douglas Bibby, the association’s president.

House Democrats have proposed providing up to $100 billion in assistance to enable renters to pay landlords. The National Multifamily Housing Council has said it supports that proposal.

Until now, the CDC’s public health emergency powers have tended to involve quarantines to prevent the spread of diseases.

The agency cited Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act as authorizing the moratorium. The order said any delay in the action “would be impracticable and contrary to the public health” given how easily the virus is spread and how many people have been infected.