Bill Tibbitts: Utah must not allow people to be evicted for being sick during a pandemic

(Screenshots from Crossroads Urban Center) Low-income advocates with Crossroads Urban Center and the government-reform group Alliance for a Better Utah have launched a campaign highlighting the role that Utah's lack of affordable housing is playing in homelessness.

There is a very serious risk that people in Utah who are sick with COVID-19 will receive an eviction notice on this coming Friday, May 15. This has not happened before now because Gov. Gary Herbert wisely chose to declare a 45-day statewide eviction moratorium on April 1.

The goal of the moratorium was to give our state time to set up a pandemic rental assistance program using newly available federal funding. State officials are working tirelessly to get this program up and running statewide before May 15, but even if they succeed it will take at least a month to spread the word to tenants who are already struggling with a serious illness.

There is a very real risk that some landlords will rush to evict tenants who they know have contracted COVID-19 in order to remove the virus from their property. There is also a significant risk that some landlords will think it is simpler to evict tenants than to wait for them to apply for help through a new state program.

The eviction moratorium needs to continue for long enough that landlords are incentivized to work with the state to keep COVID impacted tenants in their homes.

Too much of the response to this national emergency is based on the assumption that things will return to normal fairly soon. The federal enhancements to unemployment insurance expire at the end of July. The federal loan program Congress created to help small businesses get through this crisis provides incentives to loan recipients to keep employees on their payrolls, but those incentives only last for eight weeks after a business receives a loan.

What will happen to low- and moderate-income tenants if these short term measures do not restore the economy to the way it was before the COVID-19 crisis began? What if the unemployment rate continues to steadily grow for the rest of this year? What happens if employees who are currently furloughed from their jobs begin to receive notices that their jobs have been eliminated?

Fortunately, some people in Congress have begun to develop solutions for addressing these possibilities. Over 120 members of the House of Representatives and 13 members of the Senate of are cosponsoring H.R. 6314, the Emergency Rental Assistance Act of 2020. This act would provide over $100 billion in federal funding for rental assistance.

If the global economic slowdown created by the global COVID-19 pandemic puts millions of Americans out of work, then millions of workers are going to need help that is not connected to their former jobs if they are going to avoid homelessness.

Herbert needs to extend Utah’s eviction moratorium until July 15 so that we have time to see how things develop. If everyone is back to work and life is “back to normal” in July, then the delay will not hurt anyone. Landlords will receive payments from the state’s new pandemic rental assistance program during the crisis and tenants will be able to resume paying the rent themselves.

However, if things develop in a less rosy way then our state will seriously regret not extending the eviction moratorium until Congress and the President can come up with better measures to prevent mass homelessness.

Bill Tibbitts

Bill Tibbitts is associate director for Crossroads Urban Center, Salt Lake City.