Jacob Rosenzweig: Utah must stop evictions and foreclosures now

The numbers of Americans who have contracted COVID-19 are rising, alongside the numbers of those laid off from their jobs and a growing list of states and municipalities implementing moratoria on evictions and foreclosures.

Recognizing that tenants and homeowners cannot make monthly payments while unable to work, many governments are taking measures to keep people inside for the sake of public safety. It seems an obvious but important point: if staying home is the best way to stop the spread of coronavirus, one needs a home in which to stay.

That’s because evictions — never much fun even in the best of times — are especially dangerous right now. If a family is forced to leave their home, their options are often limited to moving in with others (including vulnerable older relatives), sleeping together in a car, in a motel room or a homeless shelter. In each instance they are exposing themselves and everyone else to a greater risk of infection.

The virus does not care if they were perfect tenants or not. A host is a host and there’s no place like home.

The Utah Apartment Association seems to have overlooked this nuance when drafting its’ recommendations for landlords:

“If tenants have a problem paying rent, we suggest you have a process to qualify them … but your criteria would likely require they be current on rent up till now, that they demonstrate they tested positive for the virus, were quarantined because of the virus, or lost work/income because of the virus. It wouldn’t be a blank check for anyone, just those actually affected.”

First, in a global pandemic, who isn’t “actually affected?”

Second, imagine you are diagnosed with COVID-19. On top of coping with the shock, telling your loved ones, losing your income and physically isolating yourself from the world, you now also have to provide proof your landlord deems satisfactory to avoid losing your home. And if you don’t provide that proof, you can still be forced out, whereupon you become an exponentially greater public health risk.

What if you have symptoms, but don’t have money to go to a doctor to prove you’re sick?

What if you’re symptom-free, but were laid off last month and now behind on this month’s rent? You wouldn’t meet any of the UAA’s recommended criteria and could easily be evicted. Even as a healthy person, being forced to be in public makes it not only easier to become a carrier, but a carrier with an increased range of infection.

The UAA also recommends offering rent deferrals, which allow tenants to forego paying rent now, in order to pay it back in installments over future months. But that’s on top of their normal monthly rent at a time when we don’t know what the economy will look like.

The UAA’s guidelines will not do. Between March 9 and 20, well after Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency, nearly 300 eviction cases were filed in Utah’s courts. Many, perhaps most, are likely not complaints against single tenants, but families.

Eviction cases move fast in Utah — seven to 21 days is a typical timeline — and tenants pretty much always always lose — 87% of landlords have lawyers while 96% of renters do not. Hundreds of people could be made homeless in the next few weeks when having a home is a critical defense against disease.

Public health is more important than a landlord’s profits. The State Health Department and the governor have the power to declare a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. They must do so immediately.

Jacob Rosenzweig

Jacob Rosenzweig is a member of Utah Renters Together, community advocates for the tenants of Utah.