Doug Henderson knows his odds of surviving the coronavirus are slim.
On Jan. 7, three days away from a court-ordered deadline to move out of his South Salt Lake apartment, he wanted to be sure a judge knew it, too. Henderson has asthma, diabetes and a chronic lung disease, but he believes that being evicted poses the most immediate threat to his health.
Henderson emailed Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court, filing a motion for more time to find a new apartment that would accept vouchers from Section 8, the federal program for low-income, disabled and older people. A supporting note from his doctor said if forced to leave, Henderson’s “medical health and even his life are at risk.”
But a judge had already granted several extensions and issued a court order Jan. 11 directing Henderson and his wife, Pam Henderson, to leave the Townhomes at Mountain Ridge immediately.
The pandemic has worsened the already difficult reality for low-income renters facing eviction and scrambling to find a new place to stay in a housing crunch.
A federal moratorium allows tenants to remain in their homes if they can’t cover rent because they lost work in the pandemic or their out-of-pocket medical expenses have soared. Yet other Utah renters, including some with health risks like Henderson, don’t qualify for the protection. The state allowed its own six-week moratorium to expire in May.
“I’m the poster child for not making it on COVID,” said Henderson, 60. “And what they’re doing right now is cruel.”
He collects a small Social Security check each month, and Pam Henderson, 54, is his full-time caregiver. They are now staying in a hotel but worry about potential exposure to the coronavirus there, and where they will stay next. Their share of the rent had been $111.
Did complaints lead to eviction fight?
The Hendersons allege the property owners sued to evict them in retaliation after the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, which administers their Section 8 vouchers, withheld monthly payments due to failed inspections at the home in 2019.
The agency does so if a property owner misses deadlines to fix the problems, and paused payments for three months last year as the Hendersons dealt with cockroaches, mice and a soggy downstairs bathroom ceiling due to a leak.
The complex owners alleged in court filings that the couple fell $2,300 behind on rent and fees, then later missed payments as the court case dragged on. But the Hendersons have maintained that number was too high and their efforts to get an accurate accounting of the money they owed were unsuccessful. The couple countersued, but courts don’t review such claims until after deciding how long tenants get to stay in the home.
The couple said they would have left if they could. They applied to other complexes and disclosed their eviction history, they said. Over the summer, one apartment building signed a contract with the federal housing program and directed the couple to put utilities in their name, only to deny them a lease at the final stage.
Physician King Udall wrote in his letter to the court that his patient “is literally at risk of life-threatening consequences of being forcefully removed from a property that wants him to leave but will not allow him to when he finds a new property to move to.”
But remaining in the South Salt Lake apartment also proved hazardous for Henderson, who was mostly bedridden “due to the dangerous layout of the property and every trip down the stairs is a major fall risk,” the doctor wrote.
Henderson uses a power wheelchair to move about, but a ramp at the door was too steep and narrow for the device. On Sept. 9, 2018, his physical therapist saw the chair tip and nearly force Henderson to fall, she wrote in a letter to the apartment complex.
But the company informed the Hendersons in a letter they shared with the Deseret News that the property is exempt from a federal law requiring reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities.
“They get you to the point where you just give up. You feel helpless,” Doug Henderson said in an interview last year. “You complain and they just wear you down to where you just curl up in a ball like an armadillo so they don’t hurt you anymore.”
A constable delivered a copy of the court’s order on Jan. 12 as the Hendersons sorted the last of their belongings. A volunteer group of Latter-day Saint missionaries helped load a moving truck full of furniture.
Attorney Kirk A. Cullimore, owner of the law firm representing the property company, declined to speak about the case in detail. By Cullimore’s own estimate, his attorneys file the majority of evictions in the state — about 70%.
“I am not sure that rehashing that situation is either fruitful or helpful to any of the parties,” Cullimore wrote in an email, referring to the Hendersons’ eviction. “The landlord worked with the tenant and his church to assist in the final move. It was an unfortunate situation for all parties with no ‘winner.’”
He said there are many property owners who have provided significant help to tenants, sometimes covering their bills, helping thousands apply to rent relief programs and applying on their behalf “at no cost to the tenants but a significant cost to the landlords.”
“There is no other industry that has been called upon during this pandemic to forgo financial gain while still being obligated to pay for that opportunity,” Cullimore said.
Reaching a deal, and then pandemic hits
A year ago, the Hendersons struck a deal with their property management company, with the help of a tenant’s rights attorney working at no cost.
The lawyer secured them an extra month and a half in their South Salt Lake apartment on the condition they move out by March 18 and cut a $1,600 check within two weeks. The couple sold their car to cover the cost.
“I don’t think we actually owe it, but it was either do that, or take a chance of the judge saying, ‘move,’” Pam Henderson said. “I have broken down and cried over this stuff.”
The pair searched for a new home but couldn’t manage to lock in to a new lease as the pandemic raged. Third District Judge Su Chon granted several extensions, over the objections of a lawyer representing Next Wave Property Management.
Attorney David Todd, with the Law Offices of Kirk A. Cullimore, expressed growing frustration on behalf of the owners in July, urging Chon to grant an order turning over possession of the apartment to the company at a July court hearing.
But Chon found the pandemic amounted to extenuating circumstance. She implored the couple to keep looking for housing.
At that time, Utah was reporting an average of 544 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day, with a 9.5% positive test rate. By Jan. 12, the day the couple moved out, the daily average was 2,946, with 29.3% of tests coming back positive.
Next Wave, the California-based company that owns the couple’s apartment, bought the complex roughly two years ago, but the buildings were in worse condition than it originally believed, according to Jordan Fisher, principal investor with Next Wave.
“They were really problems that we inherited. We try to be good owners. Our job is to provide them a safe, comfortable place to live,” Fisher told the Deseret News last year. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but it takes time. And you know, we’re doing our part to make it livable. We need people to do their job and pay the rent.”
He said his business doesn’t make money when apartments turn over, and the complex, home to many tenants that receive housing assistance, tries to work with them when they’re short on cash. Fisher didn’t respond to recent messages seeking comment.
The Section 8 program covered the majority of the couple’s rent, also called Housing Choice. The Hendersons were among more 10,934 households in the state receiving the vouchers, for a total of 23,908 people, said U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Shantae Goodloe.
Helping hand set up for landlords
In 2017, at the urging of the Utah Apartment Association, state lawmakers considered a proposal to take away a legal protection shielding those renters from discrimination in Utah, one of a minority of states to do so. Many of the state’s landlords saw the program’s rules as cumbersome and wanted to be able to opt out of renting to those tenants, said Paul Smith, the association’s executive director.
But after housing advocates opposed the move, the Legislature instead created a $500,000 fund available to landlords who rent to those in the federal program, allowing them to recoup expenses including attorney fees if the tenants cause damage or break a lease.
“It’s been a wonderful tool for us to encourage landlords that otherwise wouldn’t take these programs, to take them,” Smith said.
In July, at the urging of Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr., a Republican state lawmaker from Sandy and an attorney with the eviction law firm led by his father, the state set aside another $500,000 for the fund.
June Hiatt, with Utah Renters Together, said the taxpayer-funded grants Cullimore had a role in extending bolstered his business and illustrate a conflict of interest.
She said the money could be better used to offer direct help to tenants like case management for those Section 8 tenants struggling with mental health and addiction.
“Unfortunately that funding is just going to further incentivize the eviction of Section 8 tenants who need the most housing support in our state,” Hiatt said.
“We are seeing this funding go from taxpayer dollars into a fund that’s supposed to support, promote, develop and enhance affordable housing opportunities in our state,” Hiatt said.
Cullimore noted the creation of the fund predated his run for Legislature.
“This was a program supported and proposed as a compromise,” with housing advocates he said, and it expands the availability of rental housing. “Many landlords, prior to this, were just saying, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to deal with Section 8.’”
Tenant rights attorney Marty Blaustein, who’s representing the Hendersons, said the program caught him by surprise.
If landlords can recoup those expenses, he argued at a July 27 court hearing, there would be no harm in allowing the couple to remain there until they can find a new apartment.
“That has to be part of the calculation to be kicking this very disabled man out,” Blaustein said. “I think (Todd) is dealing from the bottom of the deck, your honor.”
Todd countered he had not done anything improper. He said the fund was known among attorneys who work in debt collection, and he noted in court documents the fund helped cover costs associated with a prior eviction case against the Hendersons.
Todd emphasized that landlords can’t tap into the money until a judge awards damages, which hasn’t happened in the case yet.
“There’s many, many people that have been aware of this,” Todd said. “And it has nothing to do with this case.”
He unsuccessfully sought recusal of the judge, saying she had demonstrated bias in allowing the couple to stay in the apartment after they had agreed to move in March, but 3rd District Associate Presiding Judge Laura Scott declined to take Chon off the case, writing in an August order that the allegations didn’t support conflict of interest or bias.
“Rather, plaintiff simply disagrees with Judge Chon’s decisions,” Scott wrote. Chon appeared to be trying to strike a balance between the property owner’s legitimate interest in evicting tenants who haven’t complied with a lease against Doug Henderson’s health problems.
The timeline for eviction can be fast
In most civil proceedings in Utah, a person has three weeks to file paperwork in response. In eviction cases, a tenant has three business days after receiving a summons from the property owner. A person can find themselves out of a home as quick as in 10 days.
Overall, Utah courts adjudicated nearly 4,700 eviction cases in 2020, compared to about 6,300 a year earlier, court data shows. While lawyers represented just 9% of tenants last year, up from 5% a year earlier, landlords had much greater legal representation, at 92%.
Those representing renters say some cases don’t meet legal standards for an eviction, but without legal know-how, everyday people likely won’t persuade a judge. With counsel, others could work out a payment plan or raise a defense that code violations justify nonpayment.
Property owners and attorneys working on their behalf told the Deseret News the numbers aren’t alarming. A complicated case like the Hendersons, they said, and a judge’s order typically is their last resort after exhausting all other attempts to work with tenants.
Hiatt, with Utah Renters Together, said it’s not uncommon for Section 8 tenants to become tangled in a web of state and federal requirements. But they typically don’t have the money or time to challenge the eviction cases that may follow under Utah’s quick timeline.
“The people who go to the housing authority for the most help often become the people dealing with the most complex housing problems, because they’re matching Utah state law with landlord requirements — and the fact that the landlord has basically all the power — with the administrative rules the housing authorities are bound to,” Hiatt said. “And now you have a tenant caught in the middle just trying to find a place they can afford to sleep at night.”