Ed Blake: Renters have the odds stacked against them

FILE — In this April 24, 2018, file photo, supporters of a rent control initiative calling for more rent control march on the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. A new law to take effect in 2020 will bar landlords from raising yearly rent prices by more than 5% plus the cost of inflation. Landlords also won't be allowed to evict someone without a reason or refuse to rent to someone solely because they have a federal Section 8 housing voucher. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Her name is Elizabeth and she works at a local area restaurant and rents a small, two-bedroom apartment. Her two children share the other bedroom. She has a dependable car, but it is 10 years old. She makes her way each month, but with little money left over.

A few weeks ago her employer informed her that her hours were being cut back immediately due to the drop in patronage from the effects of COVID-19. Her paycheck was half what it used to be. The schools have sent her children home and she does not have access to free childcare from relatives, and if she did she would worry about the threat of virus exposure.

After scrimping on all expenses she was $250 short on her rent of $1,200 per month. She mailed what she had. In fact it was everything she had. She has no idea that the next sequence of events, a practice played out every day in Utah, is going to negatively impact her and her children for months or possibly years to come.

Elizabeth is unaware of certain clauses in her lease that trigger additional fees upon default. There is a “concession fee” of $1,200 and a “service of notice” fee of $20. These are in addition to $75 late fees. Thus, the shortage of $250 on her rent will increase by $1,295 immediately. And 24% per annum interest on these amounts will be compounded daily.

She receives a notice to vacate in three days. She has nowhere to go. The landlord is on a financial roll now. The notice to vacate triggers treble damages if she is unable to move her family in three days. If it takes her 30 days to find a new place to live, she is now liable for $3,850. In no other legal context does the concept of triple damages exist. When we experienced foreclosures in the last economic downturn it would have been ridiculous to have damages three times higher than the house was worth.

Additional charges are still coming. She will be charged for locks to be changed. She will be charged hundreds of dollars in attorney fees for the landlord to file eviction papers with the court. In all it is realistic to assume she will ultimately be under a $5,000 burden for a $250 shortfall.

The eviction judgement arrives and she asks her children to wait out of sight of the man at the door insisting on a signature for the document delivery. This train is rushing down the tracks and she has very little control over sheltering her family.

Let’s take this a step further. When she is evicted, does the family of three become homeless? If she wishes to move to a one-bedroom apartment to save costs, will she be denied because she must submit on the application she has been evicted from another property due to lack of payment? It is likely. She has nowhere to go.

Elizabeth is an example of the many stories that have reached me, and is only a demonstration of the downward financial spiral facing renters today. If you are in this spiral too, the best advice is to contact a lawyer who offers pro bono (free) services. Be proactive. Go to court. Do not say “I am defeated.” The lawyer will be your advocate and fight for you. (Visit UtahBar.org and then search “pro bono” on the site).

I would like to ask our Utah Legislature to consider renters a priority. Let’s suspend evictions during this crisis. Several cities across the country have done this. Additionally, consider the negative impact of treble charges. The playing field for renters is often tilted. In today’s crisis we are just kicking someone when they are down and likely kicking them to our Utah streets. No one dealing with the COVID-19 crisis should have the odds stacked against them in regards to shelter.

No one.

Ed Blake

Ed Blake is the CEO of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity. He lives with his wife Linda in Salt Lake City and is currently driving her crazy while working from home during this crisis.

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