Sara Bybee: Utah’s landlord-tenant laws written to benefit those in power

Legislature should change laws to give more consideration to renters.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Imagine you are renting in Utah. During the pandemic, your boss reduced your hours and you therefore experienced a loss of income and fell behind on your monthly rent payments. While the eviction moratorium temporarily prevented you and your family from being evicted, with these moratoriums lifted, you now risk becoming homeless.

While it is never a good time to be homeless, the cold winter weather and abundant recent snow make it an even worse predicament. This is, unfortunately, not a fictitious situation. In Utah, families are being turned away from shelters due to overcrowding.

The Salt Lake Tribune, KSL and PBS Utah have previously reported on Utah state landlord-tenant policies being some of the least tenant-friendly in the United States. With three day pay-or-vacate laws and mandatory treble damages — in which tenants are required to pay three times their daily rent for every day they occupy the unit past the eviction date — debts quickly accrue.

Furthermore, most tenants don’t show up to court after being served official eviction papers, which means that a default judgment is issued (largely in favor of landlords). Unlike landlords, most tenants do not have legal representation in matters of eviction, further disadvantageing them in a situation that is already stacked against them. These policies disproportionately affect low-income renters and people of color.

None of this information is new. Utahns have been aware of these disparities for years and have been working to improve court processes and unfair housing policies. There have been a few notable accomplishments: Since late 2019, limited legal licensing allows non-attorneys to provide limited legal advice to tenants facing the threat of eviction. People’s Legal Aid offers free initial consultations to individuals facing evictions and has helped countless families avoid costly and time-consuming court proceedings. Emergency Rental Assistance has also been extended to low-income Utah renters experiencing instability or a loss of income.

Despite these important efforts to reduce evictions and keep families housed, there is one glaring problem that remains unaddressed: Landlords in Utah wield too much power in the Legislature.

The Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore are responsible for nearly half of all eviction lawsuits handled in Utah. Despite assurances from Kirk Cullimore Sr. that his son, state Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr. no longer handles eviction cases for the firm, Cullimore Jr. has boasted of writing the very landlord-tenant policy that lines his pockets. The Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore have also been found to engage in questionable tactics: A 2021 piece in the Tribune detailed how the law offices seized defendants’ legal claims, sold them at auction, bought the claims at auction, and then dismissed them.

Other disturbing accounts described how the law offices maintain a “block-list” of tenants who have been evicted or who have accrued debts to Cullimore. This information is then shared with landlords who in turn refuse to rent to these individuals. But perhaps most egregious was the firm’s use of Emergency Rental Assistance money to pay landlords’ legal bills for evicting tenants and using the promise of these funds to get tenants to leave their current housing.

These conflicts of interest held by Utah state legislators need to be addressed if any real progress is to be made in more equitable landlord-tenant policies.

As a researcher, I have to declare any conflicts of interest with every manuscript submission, grant application and research proposal. It is absurd that legislators, who possess much greater power and whose actions can directly impact the welfare of the population, do not have to be held to the same standards.

With the housing crisis and evictions being recognized as a public health issue, there is no time to waste. We need to hold legislators accountable for contributing to disparities in evictions and health.

On January 17, a new legislative session begins and it is time for Utah to pass legislation that protects renters instead of landlords. At a minimum, legislation is needed that extends the three-day notice to vacate, sets a limit on the amount of treble damages that can accrue and provides free legal advice to tenants facing the threat of eviction. However, if Utah is serious about eliminating housing disparities and improving population health, we will ultimately have to address the immoral and unlawful conduct of those in power.

Sara Bybee

Sara Bybee, Ph.D., LCSW is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah College of Nursing where she studies health equity for historically and intentionally marginalized populations. Views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Utah.