One of the pandemic’s major lasting effects on Utahns is the rising number of folks facing housing insecurity, with many finding themselves struggling to pay for rent and utilities due to circumstances related to COVID-19. On top of that, they are finding it difficult to rectify their situations. Fear of exposure to COVID-19, fluctuating restriction measures, and growing job instability have all contributed to this difficulty.
Though the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the need for housing and rental assistance, there were folks in need before COVID-19 and there will continue to be folks in need after the community returns to a more familiar state. One growing concern is what will happen once the National Eviction Moratorium is lifted on June 30. Efforts to address these concerns are underway all over the valley.
Funding is available for those in need of assistance, and several organizations are working towards finding long-term solutions to current housing and rental crises. From grassroots organizations started in response to rising housing instability, to well-established operations offering resources to those in need, there is aid available to folks in a variety of different ways.
“The current housing and rental climate is so unstable and inaccessible,” said Melanie Pehrson, lead teacher and family advocate for Utah Community Action. Utah Community Action is just one of many organizations offering resources and aid to those in need of housing assistance.
While much of the existing funding is specifically for individuals who are in need due to circumstances brought on by the pandemic, housing assistance funds are also available for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.
According to the Director of Housing and Case Management for Utah Community Action, Sahil Oberoi, over $11 million was distributed in Utah in 2020 for emergency rental assistance, and over 7,000 homes were stabilized with emergency rental assistance. “Emergency rental assistance has always been available and needed. A lot of people are applying right now. I think we have around 100 appointments a week,“ said Oberoi.
According to several sources, there is also a negatively skewed perception of people in need of rental assistance. There seems to be a general belief that it is a choice, or is connected to other issues such as substance abuse or criminal activity. There also appears to be a lack of representation of tenants in many of the current conversations, which could be greatly informative for generating more effective long-term solutions.
Alongside organizations like Utah Community Action and NeighborWorks Salt Lake, organizations like Wasatch Tenants United are addressing the growing housing crises through grassroots methods by providing a platform for tenants’ voices.
“We are focused on uplifting the material conditions of tenants in the valley. We often hold rallies, flood city council meetings, and take other direct actions to confront measures and actions that may negatively affect the interests of renters in the valley,” said a representative of Wasatch Tenants United (who asked not to be named).
Direct efforts like rallies and increasing access to resources like emergency funding and rental assistance can bring awareness to the housing and rental crisis, while offering temporary relief, but they may not provide long-term solutions to issues such as the general unaffordability of housing. What was considered the minimum standard of living roughly 10 years ago is now being considered a luxury to some. Aside from being unstable and inaccessible, the current housing climate is also seeing growing trends in tenants paying more for less.
“We are seeing more ‘micro-apartments’ going up all over the city, particularly on the West Side,” the Wasatch Tenants United representative said. These units are generally less than 300 square feet and do not include private bathrooms or kitchens.
The representative from Wasatch Tenants United also noted that while micro- apartments and other non-traditional housing alternatives are not inherently negative, they may not provide holistic solutions that the rising housing crisis needs. Continued funding for emergency assistance and other needs at the federal, state, and local levels will be immensely beneficial, and continued direct efforts including policy change, grassroots campaigning, and changing perceptions of those experiencing housing insecurities are also very important.
For COVID-19 specific emergency rental relief, applications are available at rentrelief.utah.gov. Recipients of funding have been able to pay for past-due rent, security deposits on new rental units, as well as utilities and home energy costs. Full instructions on how to apply and eligibility requirements can also be found on the website, which helps make applying a more straightforward process.
For general rental assistance, Oberoi suggests applying through Utah Community Action, which offers online applications in both English and Spanish. Applicants may also call Utah Community Action at 801-359-2444 for assistance with the application process, and staff are available to address questions and concerns. Other resources including childcare, adult education, and food pantries are also available through Utah Community Action.