Tenant advocates beefing up services ahead of anticipated wave of evictions. Mountain Mediation Center is ready to meet the needs of Summit and Wasatch County residents and educate landlords and tenants before issues arise in order to avoid eviction filings.

Article by Annie Knox for the Deseret News (August 2, 2020)

SALT LAKE CITY — Jasmine Stanley checks her bank account several times a day to see if an unexpected payment has shown up. Any extra cash will help.

She and her boyfriend are short on August rent after they got the coronavirus last week and couldn’t work.

If the Midvale couple had fallen sick earlier, moratoriums on pandemic-related evictions would have bought them more time to catch up. But a statewide freeze ended in May, and protection for Stanley and other renters in buildings with federally backed mortgages ran out last week.

“It’s pretty overwhelming. It causes a lot of anxiety,” said Stanley, 22, who estimates she will fall hundreds of dollars short of her roughly $900 rent. “We had one of my friends take our coins to Coinstar to see how much money we could get. She got about $50, so that was cool, but still not enough.”

After an initial dip in evictions in recent months, tenant advocates expect the number to swell. Many are ramping up services in English and Spanish to handle the anticipated surge, although a rental owner industry group says the fears are overblown.

The evictions threaten to amplify a longtime trend. Most Utahns who face eviction lawsuits — 95% as of last year — have no legal representation, while the vast majority of property owners — 91% — are equipped with attorneys, show Utah courts system data on the 6,300 cases adjudicated last year.

Unemployment benefits and an additional $600 a week in federal relief have helped other Utahns weather the pandemic, but the extra payments have now ceased. As of June, 85,700 in the state were out of work, according to the Department of Workforce Services.

And while many have found jobs as the state has gradually reopened, rising numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases make for an uncertain economy.

Stanley said her boyfriend, Vaitupu Collins, developed a fever and body aches after an infected co-worker at his manufacturing job came to work with symptoms. Soon Stanley struggled to breathe even while lying on the couch and could not muster the energy to work from home for her call center job. Within a few days, Stanley began to feel better, but Collins was too drained to speak with a reporter. Both tested positive for the virus.

The state has set aside $20 million and the US. government $4 million in rent help for Utahns like Stanley, although restrictions apply.

Stanley learned she may not qualify for a grant because Collins, staying with her to avoid infecting eight family members he usually lives with, is not on her lease. She got in touch with a property agent at her building, who said she would qualify for a break only if within $99 of the full payment.

She doesn’t plan to seek help from her family. Her father, a construction worker who remodels hotels, was laid off in July.

“I think it’s just important for people to see that just because the state isn’t shut down anymore doesn’t mean that people aren’t struggling,” Stanley said.

Marty Blaustein, an attorney with Utah Legal Services, agreed.

“This is not going to be pretty,” said Blaustein, whose firm is hiring three new advocates to work on eviction and debt collection cases.

The main industry group for Utah rental property owners sees it differently.

Paul Smith, the executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, noted June’s number of eviction court cases filed statewide — 332 — is down by about half. It did not rebound to normal levels after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s six-week hold on evictions lifted in May, a dip he attributes to landlords willing to work with tenants, government assistance, and financial contributions from churches, family members and charities.

Smith estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 apartments — about 10-16% of the state stock — have federally backed loans.

“The reality is it’s not a crisis,” he said. “So far, we’re doing just fine.”

Many of the state’s roughly 100,000 rental owners are senior citizens who rely on the income for retirement or to help support their families, Smith said.

As of late last week, no flood of calls had hit Park City’s Mountain Mediation Center. But a handful of mediators were already training in the nitty-gritty of state housing law, in part so they can inform renters of their rights, said executive director Gretchen Lee.

“In my mind, education is such a key component for tenants since the laws are not stacked in their favor,” Lee said.

Jeffrey Daybell, the executive director of the new nonprofit People’s Legal Aid, predicts several waves of evictions in coming months. His organization is Utah’s first to focus solely on representing tenants throughout the state, supplementing his job helping low-income clients at the Utah State Bar.

Daybell said landlords have largely allowed Utahns to defer rent and stay in their homes, “but if tenants haven’t returned to work in a way that allows them to make those payments in the future, we have essentially postponed a very large debt.”

Some landlords are seeking to oust those who can’t pay for other reasons.

One of Daybell’s clients recently fought and won a nonpayment eviction case after pointing out the home had a federally backed loan. The next day, the landlord served the man an eviction notice for nuisance, which is not blocked by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The landlord alleged he was talking, laughing and playing music too loud, in addition to leaving on porch and kitchen lights.

It’s not clear how many laid-off, furloughed or reduced-hour renters are facing similar nuisance claims but simply leave instead of trying to disprove them, Daybell said.

“I’m nervous that it’s happening outside of court and we don’t have an ability to catch it,” he said.

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