Renters’ rights bills face an uphill battle in a state Legislature full of landlords

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) An apartment complex under construction in Salt Lake City, Nov. 12, 2018.

Three renters’ rights bills under discussion in this year’s state legislative session aim to balance the scales of Utah law that often weigh in favor of landlords over tenants.

The proposals could affect everything from the minutiae of rental applications — like Provo Rep. Marsha Judkins’ legislation to require landlords to disclose early on an itemized list of fees a prospective renter could have to pay — to the entire rental ecosystem, like Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost’s effort to eliminate the state prohibition on communities establishing rent control.

But each will likely face an uphill battle amid heavy lobbying against the measures from the Utah Apartment Association and in a legislative body that’s filled with a number of landlords and property owners.

“They’re making the rules to protect themselves as opposed to protecting tenants,” argued Martin Blaustein, managing attorney with Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit that offers help for noncriminal charges to low-income Utahns. And “there are very few tenant associations who lobby to change the laws to benefit tenants."

Two weeks into the session, none of the bills has made it far. Judkins’ HB211 stalled during a committee hearing Thursday over concerns about how it would affect less-experienced landlords running small rental operations. And Dailey-Provost said the general consensus is that her bill, HB131, won’t pass.

“I’ve had a pretty hostile reception from a lot of colleagues," she said, “and I’ve gotten a number of voicemail messages and emails from owners who do own apartments and rent them out that are, we’ll say, somewhat less than complimentary.”

[Related story: New Utah housing bill would put $30M into rental assistance and building low-income apartments]

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is also working on an as-yet unfiled bill that would help keep tenants from paying multiple background check fees when applying for apartments. He did not respond to a request for comment Friday about whether he would formally introduce that legislation this session.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, speaks as the House repeals the tax package they passed last month during a special session, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

In an interview, the Utah Apartment Association expressed opposition to these measures, stressing caution about their possible unintended consequences.

Paul Smith, the association’s executive director, says the group wants to see landlords treat renters “right and fair.” But he argues the state’s system already does that with a number of protections for tenants spelled out in Utah’s Fit Premises Act, including requirements that landlords give 24 hours’ notice before entering a home in most cases and that they disclose a copy of the lease.

“We’ve bent over backwards as an industry," he said, “to create these amazing rights for renters so that Utah’s really one of the most balanced landlord-tenant states in the country.”

But Blaustein said that, in practice, the state’s rules — particularly around evictions — favor landlords with “really no balance at all” and that renters are often afraid to exercise the few rights they do have.

“If you complain about [an abuse], you wind up with an eviction notice, especially on a month-to-month lease,” he said. “Even if you prevail and win your case, there’s still that black mark on your record.”

‘Real estate’ for rent control

While Dailey-Provost said she knows there’s not much of an appetite to repeal the portion of state code that prevents a county, city or town from enacting measures to control rents or fees on private residential properties, she still believes it’s a conversation worth having.

The Salt Lake City Democrat said she doesn’t personally favor broad rent control, like the caps on rent New York City imposed in the 1970s and 1980s, since those policies can often drive down the supply of rental properties.

But "there is a lot of real estate, and I use that pun intentionally, between no rent control and New York City-in-the-70s-type rent control,” Dailey-Provost said. “I think that a city should have the opportunity to creatively examine really targeted tools that, for example, may specifically be intended to help disadvantaged populations — like people with disabilities or immigrant communities. Whatever is meaningful for that city.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jennifer Dailey-Provost, who represents State House 24, is running a bill that would repeal the portion of state code that prevents a county, city or town from enacting measures to control rents or fees on private residential properties.

Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, which advocates for low-income Utahns, said there are already some rent control-type policies in Utah, such as tax credits developers can apply for and earn in exchange for creating units at or below-market rent.

And while she commended Dailey-Provost for starting a conversation around the issue, Rollins said her organization won’t take a stance on the bill, since there are too many questions and too few answers about the benefits and consequences communities could face.

“I just don’t think right now is the time to be talking about rent control without all the information and studies done,” she said.

Smith, with the Utah Apartment Association, called rent control a “failed policy” that he said “hurts the communities that it’s tried in.”

If landlords can’t keep up with market rents, he said, they often lack the money needed to maintain units, which can bring “whole neighborhoods” into disrepair.

And if “it’s not profitable anymore, people stop building apartments,” he said, arguing that’s the last thing that should happen in a state with a known dearth of affordable housing.

Dailey-Provost said she hasn’t heard directly from any communities one way or another on whether they’d be interested in imposing rent control but thinks that’s a decision that should be left to municipalities, which she said would align with the value state leaders put on small government and self-determination.

“That’s an argument that my conservative colleagues argue for almost every policy," she said, “and this is the antithesis of small government.”

But Smith said the Apartment Association sees this as an issue that’s best left to state leaders.

“Sometimes you have blue cities in red states that are going to do things that really aren’t in the interest of the greater good," he said, “and so it’s appropriate for the state to say, no, this is a state question; this isn’t a question by city.”

‘Places that they can’t afford’

Before her bill went before the House Business and Labor Committee on Thursday, Judkins said she thought the idea of requiring owners of residential rental units to make expense-related disclosures to prospective renters before they accept an application or application fee was pretty straightforward.

“Just about everyone I talk to, in or out of the Legislature, they’re surprised it’s not already in statute,” she said.

The idea came out of her discussions with low-income women about their challenges applying for apartments only to find out that there were extra fees tacked on each month that they couldn’t afford, the Provo Republican said.

“I don’t think it’s malicious landlords, but they need more training; they need to think about it,” she said. “And I think it protects the landlord because everyone knows what’s happening. They know that it’s upfront and what they’re going to be paid and they’re not accepting tenants that can’t afford it. And then it protects the tenant so they don’t spend money on application fees for places that they can’t afford.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows then Rep.-elect Marsha Judkins after she won the 2018 election in House District 61.

Rollins, with the Utah Housing Coalition, said her organization is actively working on Judkins’ bill, which it sees as a way to ensure Utahns on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum move into their new homes and are stable — “not already starting with a negative budget."

“We don’t have enough affordable housing out there,” she said. “We need to make sure people are stable in the housing that they’re already living in. Because once somebody gets an eviction, it’s extremely hard for them to get back into the system.”

During the committee meeting Thursday, though, several lawmakers expressed concern about how a provision in the bill preventing a landlord from using nonpayment of an undisclosed fee as the basis for an eviction would affect inexperienced landlords.

“It makes me nervous for the mom and pop operation here if they miss something,” said Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, as he read through the lengthy list of requirements. “Now they can’t evict if they miss disclosing internet fees.”

Smith from the Utah Apartment Association, which has worked with Judkins on the bill, said he would like to see the language of her legislation established as a “best practice,” so the group can help teach landlords to make those disclosures without penalties “for landlords that maybe don’t do it all perfect.”

Judkins’ measure was tabled Thursday and she indicated a desire to continue fine-tuning the proposal and bring it back for further discussion.

But one person, at least, expressed a lack of confidence that any measures offering more protections for tenants would make much headway before the session ends next month.

“A Legislature that’s full of landlords, why would they want to do that?” Blaustein scoffed.