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Apartments and town houses on Traverse Mountain Boulevard in Lehi are pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Apartments and town houses on Traverse Mountain Boulevard in Lehi are pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Why millions in federal rent aid remains untouched — even in Utah — as moratorium clock ticks

While some states have been more sluggish to issue rent aid, Utah has doled out $44 million. But there’s still over $150 million available

SHARE Why millions in federal rent aid remains untouched — even in Utah — as moratorium clock ticks

Dan Harmon, a 65-year-old retired firefighter on a fixed income, never thought he or his wife would ever need rental assistance.

“I’ve never done that. We’ve always been able to take care of ourselves,” he said. “I was a firefighter for 26 years. My dad was a colonel in the Air Force for 30 years, and we’ve never done anything like that. ... I told my wife, ‘We need to save that for other people that are in worse positions.’”

But the pressures grew over the last six years, then painfully sharpened in 2020.

“I had to put my pride aside.”

So Harmon said he gathered the forms he needed, applied for rental assistance through the state of Utah at rentrelief.utah.gov, and was surprised that he qualified because his retirement income put his family below 80% of the Ogden-Clearfield area median income of about $86,000 a year. His $1,135 rent payment for a two-bedroom apartment in Layton is now paid for the next four months.

Harmon said he and his wife can now breathe. They can finally focus not so much on making rent each month and more on their medical problems. Harmon said he recently found out he’s diabetic and is dealing with severe pain in his feet and legs. Walking’s a challenge. And Harmon said his wife has had surgery three times for hernias, and she’s trying to prepare for a fourth.

The rental assistance gave them financial relief after a hectic year of moving out of a house mid-COVID-19 because their landlord raised their rent $250 a month to $1,820, their breaking point. Weeks of looking for a new place to live turned into expensive months in hotel rooms as they struggled to find a new place to rent. It wasn’t until June did they find their Layton apartment, but they’re still feeling the financial squeeze.

Harmon said there’s got to be many more Utahns like him that have resisted or put off seeking help even though they’re struggling, thinking, “I’ve always earned my money. I’m not taking anything from anybody.”

“I think there’s plenty of those out there, that have that pride,” Harmon said. “Retired police officers. Bank employees. Nurses. Whatever. If they’re struggling big time, they ought to realize, look back at how many times you paid your taxes and you’ve never asked for help before. ... Well, maybe now’s the time.”

A “For Rent” sign is pictured in Salt Lake City on April 9, 2021.

A “For Rent” sign in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Millions untouched

In Utah, there’s still over $150 million in federal rental assistance available for struggling renters. About $44 million has been paid out to give renters and landlords relief since March out of about 9,000 successful applications, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

That’s part of billions in federal money that’s been approved for housing aid across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, some $47 billion has been slow to reach renters and landlords. Some states like New York have distributed only a fraction of its $2.7 billion, while several have only approved a few million dollars, the Associated Press reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended the eviction moratorium again until Oct. 3, applying it only to counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 transmission. Essentially all of Utah falls in that category.

It’s unclear how long that extension will last. President Joe Biden himself has said any extension is likely to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was meant to buy time for those still waiting for relief checks

While it’s doing better than other states like New York, Utah still has millions in assistance renters are not taking advantage of.

State officials and housing advocates say a number of factors might be influencing why the money has been slow to reach renters and landlords in Utah, from paperwork issues to Utahns simply being unaware of the program.

Some renters, like Harmon, may not want to get help and are hesitant to reach out. Some renters might be struggling to get the needed documentation in order. Some landlords and renters may not be working well together to provide the required paperwork, like the W9 form, said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.

“I think there’s some landlords out there and equally tenants that have not done their due diligence — whether they don’t know it’s available or they’re afraid, they’ve never had help before,” Rollin said. “There’s an array of reasons.”

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Apartments and town houses on Traverse Mountain Boulevard in Lehi are pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. The U.S. Census Bureau is set to release more information collected in the 2020 survey. The influx of new apartments and condos in Utah County has fueled population growth in comparison to Salt Lake County.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Lack of ‘urgency’

But if renters are struggling to pay choose between paying rent, utilities, medical bills or food, Christina Oliver, director of the state’s Housing and Community Development Division, said it’s time to get help.

“Folks who don’t want to rely on public assistance, that is absolutely understandable. We are empathetic to absolutely everyone who doesn’t want to go down that road, quite frankly, and most people don’t,” Oliver said. “Those are the folks that we want to apply.”

The U.S. Census estimates about 16,000 people in Utah are at risk of eviction and foreclosure — 2,200 of those at high risk.

While housing advocates say there is demand and need for those dollars, Oliver said there seems to be a lack of “urgency” for many to seek help.

“Perhaps the sense of urgency isn’t there yet with the moratorium being extended yet again, I’m not sure if there will be individuals who will start to apply if and when that moratorium expires,” Oliver said. “Then perhaps there will be sense of urgency and we’ll see more applications come in a quicker manner.”

In total, the Utah Department of Workforce Services has received just under 15,000 applications at rentrelief.utah.gov, Oliver said. Of those, 9,000 applicants qualified and were paid out, while almost 3,500 were denied. Reasons range from missing documentation — like proof on income and the lease and the landlord’s W9 — or renters not returning phone calls to finish the process.

Daneen Adams with Open Doors, a housing advocacy organization that helps low-income families in northern Utah, said some renters are struggling to obtain all the required documentation, but there are also many who still don’t know about the program or don’t understand it.

“I think our state’s done a great job in marketing the program, getting the word out. It’s just a matter of people not understanding when (they apply online) they’re having to get all this documentation,” Adams said. “They need the landlord’s W9, they need verification they’ve been impacted by COVID-19. ... They’re not understanding that you haven’t had to physically had COVID-19 to receive the assistance.”

Adams said more renters likely qualify than they know if they make less than 80% of their areas median income, which can be calculated using an online tool at huduser.gov. People could qualify if they had their hours cut at work, if they lost their child care, or any indirect impacts due to the pandemic’s upheaval.

But with so much rental assistance dollars left untouched, is there even enough demand for what’s been allocated? Adams said the need is clear.

“Just so you know, we’ve seen an 82% increase in rental assistance (applications and qualifications) in Davis County since pre-pandemic,” Adams said. “So that tells us there’s a huge need — and it tells us there’s a lot of people that are living paycheck to paycheck and are definitely housing insecure.”

For the most part, Adams said, landlords want to work with renters to get the assistance because that means they’ll get paid.

Most of all, Adams said, renters need to reach out for help and apply for assistance at the first sign of financial strain — not when an eviction notices is taped on their door. By then, it’s too late and is way more difficult for advocates to help them in time.

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A sign advertises apartments for lease in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How are Utah landlords being impacted?

Paul Smith, executive director of the association the Utah Apartment Association, which represents landlords, said people need to understand the moratorium “isn’t really a moratorium. It is simply a defense.” It allows renters, so long as they’re making partial payments, communicating with their landlords, and applied for assistance, to “defer eviction if they still owe money.”

It’s not an eviction, Smith said, if landlords issue an end-of-term notice when the lease is up.

“We have a hot market right now, so there’s lots of owners who are ready to sell and so they give their tenant notice,” Smith said. “As frustrating as that is for the tenant and as hard as it may be to find a new place right now, that has nothing to do with the eviction moratorium. That has nothing to do with rental assistance ... It’s just state of the market.”

For the most part, renters who are applying for that rental assistance in Utah are “getting it,” Smith said. “The landlords are being paid. The landlords are happy. Tenants gets to stay. It’s a win-win for everyone. So the eviction moratorium really has no effect or very little effect on rental operations.”

Normally, landlords collect about 96% of their rent in Utah, Smith said. Over the last year since the pandemic started, that’s only down to 95%.

“So it’s really close to normal. That doesn’t mean there are some landlords who had to accept payments late or wait or work with renters, and that’s fine. But it’s not this huge crisis or problem like the national media would have you think.”

Normally, about 600 Utah renters are evicted per month out of about 300,000 rental units, Smith said. This year, that figure has been averaging about 329 a month.

“The reality is, if there are bad renters, we can still get them out,” Smith said. The CDC moratorium doesn’t cover criminal activity, violation of lease or if the renter is “flat-out ignoring us and refusing to apply for rental assistance.”

Smith said he’s not worried about the millions Utah still has available for rental assistance, with another $200 million more coming. Utah has until 2027 to spend that second installment, and Smith estimates the state is actually “on track” to spend it all.

The program launched in March, and in the first three months Utah doled out about $35 million. Those who applied and got that rental assistance are likely to apply and qualify again after three months, then again in another three months.

“Listen, if I were in New York, I’d be very frustrated because they haven’t cut a single check. Or if I was in California, I’d be frustrated because they require landlords to accept 80% as payment in full. But the state of Utah is being very fair,” Smith said. “They’re paying all late fees. They’re paying utilities. They’re paying all contractual obligations of the renter. So it’s a win-win.”

So overall, Smith said landlords in Utah aren’t fretting over the moratorium extension. But they still need renters to cooperate with them and communicate at the first sign of trouble.

“Don’t ghost your landlord,” he said. “Don’t ignore this. If you apply for rental assistance, you’ll get it.”

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A for rent sign is pictured in the Avenues in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 16, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News