Utah evictions have hit a 7-year high. We need to maintain safety nets for our neighbors, Robert Gehrke writes.

As pandemic protections are rolled back, Utahns living on the edge are once again at the mercy of landlords and the state’s untenable rental market.

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

Late last year, David got a surprise from his rental management company: The rent on his home in Daybreak where he’d been living for nearly two years was increasing by $600 a month.

He complained to the rental company to no avail and looked for other places he could live, but, as you’ve probably heard, rental units in the Salt Lake Valley are in short supply.

David (not his real name) caught a break, though, and was able to qualify for an Emergency Rental Assistance program, funded with federal Covid relief dollars and administered by the state. He got four months of help and was told to come back in mid-February and apply for an extension.

But, on Feb. 5, the state discontinued the program.

Nate McDonald, deputy director of the Department of Workforce Services, said the program had run out of money and the state needed to stop taking applications for new aid or extensions. Over two years, he said, the state and local partners spent right around $350 million on the Emergency Rental Assistance program.

Losing the anticipated assistance left David and his family scraping to get by.

“We’re struggling, but still living here,” he told me recently. “We’re probably going to move out and find something else when the lease is up.”

He’s one of the lucky ones — because for many Utah renters, the expiration of the program came at an inopportune time. As eviction moratoriums have been lifted, Covid-era food assistance for low-income families were also being rolled back.

“Timing-wise,” McDonald said, “I don’t think the feds had any idea we’d run out of money at the same time that emergency allotment ended.”

It’s not surprising that many who were teetering on the brink before are falling over the precipice.

In recent months, eviction filings have, predictably, been climbing. In March alone, according to a recent presentation to the Salt Lake Chamber, attorneys for landlords filed about 800 eviction cases against tenants who had fallen behind on their rent — the most in seven years and double the number filed two years earlier.

And chances are — with aid phased out, a continued tight rental market and inflationary pressures — we haven’t seen the peak.

According to a report last month from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, while rents in the state’s four most populous counties dipped slightly in 2022, between 2016 and 2021 they had increased significantly, far outpacing income growth.

In Weber County, rent shot up nearly 43% while the average income of renters was up 18.4%. Rent in Davis County was up 42% while income was up less than 8%. In Salt Lake County, rental costs rose by 37% as income grew by 18.5%.

There are tangible benefits to housing stability: Kids do better in school, physical and mental health risks decrease and job opportunities grow.

Now, I’m not suggesting that taxpayers should have kept paying people’s rent forever. But Republicans in Congress are proposing cutting the surviving rental voucher program by 20% — the exact wrong way to go.

So what do we do?

I wrote in March how a beneath-the-radar tax credit the Legislature passed last session could help bolster the supply of deeply affordable housing. And McDonald notes that Workforce Services offers training programs aimed at helping people earn more money.

It’s a good start. But Utah remains one of the worst states in the country for renters and we need some real changes.

A study by the Utah Bar Association last year noted that Utah is the only state in the country where tenants behind on rent have just 72 hours to vacate an apartment or else be on the hook for triple what they owe plus attorneys fees and interest. That’s shameful and should change.

We need transparency and possibly caps on fees charged to renters — including rental application fees. Fox 13 reported recently on a couple that had to pay a non-refundable $380 fee to apply for an apartment that they ended up not getting, which is just absurd.

Cities need more latitude to regulate and enforce where short-term rentals are allowed.

And, ultimately, in a state where we can give tens of millions in tax breaks to wealthier residents, we should be able to afford to maintain some sort of fence to help keep our neighbors teetering on the brink from slipping over the edge, rather than trying to deal with the consequences when they hit the bottom.