By Eric S. Peterson
The following story was written and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with West View Media.
Preston Lange had just embarked on the pilgrimage many a plucky young 20s-something will make, heading out of his hometown to chase his dream and make a living on his own terms. But he had only been at the Sky Harbor Apartment complex on 1876 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City about six months when he found rent was suddenly approaching faster than money was coming in.
Lange’s passion is video production – creating music, wedding and the occasional corporate video, but the work is “feast or famine,” and he was in a “famine” stretch and asked his landlords if he could get a few extra days on his rent. He pushed it too far and had finally got a paycheck on the 12th of the month only to be served an eviction notice that day. The management offered to let him stay only if he paid an extra $500 for a legal settlement.
Lange was facing the dreaded three-day eviction notice and set into a panic that grips many renters. He didn’t know where to turn and even called several lawyers only to be told that their free consultations could only happen days after the three-day deadline.
“I ended up sucking it up and paying the $500 just to get rid of the problem,” Lange says. In the end he doesn’t bear a grudge against management, but wishes they would have given him more warning about when the eviction would go to the lawyer.
He recognizes that he was lucky to have enough savings to pay the legal fee and avoid eviction.
“It sucks, but there’s definitely people in way worse situations than me,” Lange says.
Sadly, there are scores of worse situations for renters all over the state, including the west side of Salt Lake City. While the booming housing market has brought profit to home sellers and real-estate investors, the boom has also exploded the price of living in Utah, with some of the worst collateral damage hitting low and middle-income renters struggling to find affordable housing.
Local experts – from housing advocates, university researchers to a local evictions lawyer – agree that the skyrocketing home values bring with them higher rents as well. Plus, low vacancy rates mean landlords are less likely to cut tenants slack knowing that there are many other potential renters out there.
The Project searched court databases for eviction records for 48 of the largest west-side apartment complexes, that combined, offer 7,745 units for rent. Court records for these complexes show a steady upward trajectory for filed eviction notices with the courts. These notices don’t always mean a tenant was evicted; some disputes get settled. But in 2017 there were 230 eviction notices filed for these large complexes, and from January 1 to Aug. 30, 2018, there were already 226 eviction notices filed. These records of course say nothing about people who were simply priced out of the rentals they were at and left before they faced eviction, or those who were evicted illegally.
The Salt Lake Chamber’s Housing Gap Coalition, dedicated to getting the state to prepare for the effects of it’s booming population, commissioned a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah that found there are 54,047 more households than there are homes available. Since 2010 the report states that Utah has added four new households for every three new housing units.
Brynn Mortensen with the Housing Gap Coalition says they are working hard to encourage cities to plan smarter – more varieties of housing that is affordable and denser, especially near transit areas. A big part of it is getting Utahns used to the idea of larger housing projects.
“People think these projects bring transients or criminals – It’s not true, it’s your nurses, your firefighters, your school teachers, and your children and grandchildren looking for housing,” Mortensen says.
This pressure is already being felt on the west side. On the one hand a number of exciting development projects have come to the west side, like the upscale Alta Gateway station, or the recently approved Blue Lotus Townhomes that will be finished in 2019 across from the North Temple Trax station. But new luxury housing projects – that offer no affordable units – still contribute to the squeeze on low and middle-income prices.
June Hiatt of the Utah Housing Coalition says the effect is pronounced on Salt Lake City’s west side where major housing complexes have gone in near the North Temple frontrunner station that charge rents few west siders can afford. Ironically a lot of residents live there, she says, and then hop on the tracks and head to Utah County’s “Silicon Slopes” area to work.
“Now we’re seeing these massive developments coming in and really skyrocketing prices, which affects all of the naturally occurring affordable housing in the area,” Hiatt says.
The economic reality of it just doesn’t add up in favor of low-income renters.
“If a developer can come in, put apartments on the ground and rent them for $2,000 a month – $1,000 over market rate – then they’re making a huge profit,” Hiatt says. “But there’s no incentive for someone to say ‘You know what, maybe I’ll just break even on this project,’” by developing affordable units.
Sahil Oberoi, the Director of Housing Case Management at Utah Community Action, an organization that provides emergency rental assistance, says complexes that used to accept Section-8 Housing vouchers are now less inclined.
“Once a lease is over, it’s up to the discretion of the landlord to raise prices or not and we are seeing some landlords that are opting not to accommodate vouchers because they can make more money through the free market than subsidized housing,” Oberoi says.
Large west-side complexes that filed the highest rates of evictions per units on site, sadly include subsidized housing units operated by the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City. Taylor Gardens, a subsidized housing complex for seniors with housing vouchers located at 1790 S. West Temple saw 13 eviction notices filed since 2017. Right next to the site of the swanky Blue Lotus project on North Temple is Freedom Landing, subsidized housing for veterans transitioning out of homelessness. Since 2017, 15 eviction notices were filed there. These tenants face the added sting that once evicted, they can’t get back on section-8 housing for seven years.
In August 2018 Freedom Landing evicted a resident for owing $45 in rent, in 2017 another resident was evicted for owing $426 in rent and had a judgment against him for damages that added up to $5,351.
Zac Pau’u, Director of Homeless Programs at Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, would not speak to the general number of eviction notices but did explain the organization actively works with tenants to address their issues and meet their obligation of paying 30 percent of their income toward rent with a federally mandated minimum of $50. The added legal costs he says are part of the lease agreement that’s explained to the tenants. In the case of the man evicted over $45, Pau’u explained he had not paid rent for nine months and up to that point the Housing Authority had used grant funding to cover him, but eventually decided he could not be subsidized any longer.
“As an agency we are in the business of taking people off the streets, not putting people on them, therefore, each eviction is only considered after lengthy deliberation,” Pau’u says.
The Default Judgment Trap
Housing advocates are hopeful for new reforms meant to help address the strain on renters, like the chamber’s push for more housing options. Oberoi says Utah Community Action recently got county funding for an eviction mediator that is at Salt Lake City courts three days a week to help tenants negotiate a deal with landlords.
“Once you’re there everything is negotiable because at the end of the day a landlord just wants to get the money,” Oberoi says, adding that a mediator can work out extensions and payment plans. But if the tenant ignores an eviction notice, they fall down a default judgement spiral.
One of the confusing aspects of the law is that the three-day notice often appears to the panicky tenant as meaning they only have two options – pay or leave. In reality the most important thing to do is usually not printed on the notice – they need to respond to the landlord in writing. It could even be a handwritten letter.
If the tenant doesn't respond quickly, the landlord can then file a three-day summons notice, and if the tenant fails to respond to that notice, a default judgment follows with hefty additional fees – including attorney fees – added onto the rental debt.
The Solara Apartment complex at 780 N. 900 West, had in 2017 the highest rate of eviction notices filed per units of all the large west-side apartments complexes at 18 percent, and with 44 tenants and families evicted in 2017 by default judgement from the court. Meaning they didn’t respond to their landlord in three days and so, got whacked with all the penalties allowed by Utah law.
For those 44 evictions, the tenants on average owed $329 but received default judgments against them that averaged $2,853, simply because they didn’t respond to an eviction notice or show up to court in some cases.
James Deans is an eviction attorney in Salt Lake City, representing landlords. He finds no joy in putting people out on the street and works to cut deals whenever he can. On the flipside he also represents small landlords who might just be using rental income from a small duplex to retire on, or to live off the income themselves, and is happy to make sure a bad tenant doesn’t end up putting the landlord out on the street.
He agrees that too often tenants simply don’t communicate with landlords when they get the notice.
“You’ll find that money talks with these guys,” Deans says. And barring that, tenants need to write some kind of letter to keep them from getting hit with a default judgement.
“Even if I just write on a piece of toilet paper ‘I intend to move out,’ that saves a default judgment going against you,” he says.
Often times Deans says those added default judgment fees aren’t sent to collections, but nevertheless the record follows the tenant and makes it that much harder for them to get into a new place when they’ve got an eviction on their record.
These judgements already make life difficult enough, and research shows evictions often hit already disadvantaged groups. Kara Byrne a Research Assistant Professor with the University of Utah College of Social Work recently studied evictions in Salt Lake County. She and another researcher used eviction records and census data to look for correlations and found Latinos had the strongest correlation with evictions, along with groups living below the poverty line and other minority households.
Not surprisingly groups with English as a second language might struggle to understand the nuance of things like three-day eviction notices, and what their rights are.
Hiatt with the Utah Housing Coalition says policy leaders are right to promote more housing units but they also need to invest in people too – more case managers and legal assistance to help renters stay indoors. Once people are kicked to the curb, managing all the challenges of employment, health, education and myriad other issues becomes incredibly more difficult.
“Housing is the foundation to everything,” Hiatt says. “If you do not have a safe place to go home to how can you confidently find a new job? Or get your kid into school or even read a book to your child at night? How can you do that if you don’t have a safe place to live?”
Updated 10/16/2018: The original article has been corrected to note an extra step in the legal process for a landlord to obtain a default judgment against a tenant who is served with an eviction notice.