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Utah homeless rates are increasing. How much are evictions to blame?

Senator, who stepped away from father’s debt collection law firm that handles evictions, says issue is more complex and Utah is neither most renter-friendly nor most landlord-friendly state

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Jun 17, 2024

Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex July 14, 2020, in Phoenix. Court officials in Arizona’s most populous county and one of America’s fastest growing regions say they saw more eviction filings in October 2023 than in any month this century. Court spokesman Scott Davis said Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, that landlords last month filed 7,948 eviction complaints with the justice courts in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix.

In 2022, Utah had a rate of nearly 11 people experiencing homelessness per 10,000, a 3.7% increase from 2021 and a 22.5% increase from 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s below the national average of 18, notes a new report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, but that doesn’t mean Utah’s homelessness problems aren’t sharpening.

“While rates of homelessness in Utah remain lower than the national average, chronic homelessness increased 96% from 2019 to 2023 and 27% in 2023 alone,” states the report, up from 512 people in 2019 up to 1,004 in 2023.

The institute conducted the research at the request of and with the support from the Utah Impact Partnership, a group of powerful philanthropists working with state and local leaders to improve Utah’s homeless system.

From 2020 to 2022, Utah’s growth rate of individuals experiencing homelessness was up 13.6%, still below the national average of 20%, but higher than Idaho’s -13.7%, according to the report.

Utah’s rising housing costs — which skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many states in the West saw an influx of homebuying — are indeed part of the problem.

In 2022, the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time hit 8,637, an increase of 821 people from 2021, according to the Utah Office of Homeless Services’ 2023 report. Another report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute released in 2023 estimated housing instability and homelessness threaten at least 40,000 extremely low-income renter households in Utah, with incomes of less than $24,000. Average Utah rental rates in Salt Lake County have steadily increased from $755 in 2010 to $1,623 in 2022, according to that report.

A panel discussion hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Institute on Wednesday reviewed these statistics and discussed next steps for Utah’s homeless system, with state and local leaders saying they need to focus on “outcomes,” or strategies that are proven to help move people out of homelessness.

Evictions

When the panel fielded audience questions, they were asked about how to prevent homelessness from occuring in the first place and the impact Utah’s evictions laws can have on people who become homeless and stay homeless because of consequences of having evictions on their records, as well as increased costs they can incur because of evictions.

One of the panelists, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, — whose father owns the Law Offices of Kirk A. Cullimore, which claims on its website it files more evictions than any other law firm in the state — said Utah can “always look at” its eviction laws and policies and their impacts on homelessness, but he said the state is “somewhere in the middle” when compared to other states regarding pro-renter or pro-landlord policies.

“I would say,” he said, “at the state level, Utah is not the most tenant-friendly state, but we’re also not the most landlord-friendly state. We’re somewhere in the middle.”

Last year, saying it was impossible to balance his legislative duties with the firm, Cullimore stepped away from his father’s law firm and said he’d no longer handle evictions or collections cases, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah’s rental housing market “has one of the lowest eviction rates in the nation.” The state’s eviction rate was just under 1% in 2019 (about 2,700 renters), according to Princeton’s Eviction Lab. Often the legal process is terminated before an actual eviction occurs, but in terms of filings, Utah ranked 38th of 47 states with a 2.2% rate, or about 6,600 renters, according to the report.

In Salt Lake County in 2022, 3,543 evictions were filed in Salt Lake County, according to a January 2023 report by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

“While a person can be evicted with just 3 days notice, an eviction can have lifelong impacts on a person’s ability to secure and retain housing making them more likely to experience homelessness for longer time periods,” stated the report, which gave an overview of Utah homelessness issues.

The coalition’s report also urged policymakers to “review Utah’s eviction laws to address inequitable access to safe and stable housing.”

When it comes to evictions, Utah’s policies are “among the least renter-friendly in the nation,” a 2022 Utah Bar Foundation report states. “Only two other states have a three-day ‘pay or vacate’ window coupled with treble damages, which may be assessed in addition to any back rent owed, for residential evictions.”

It’s worth noting that in 2022, the Utah Legislature passed HB359, a bill that streamlined the expungement process and allows a former renter to have their eviction case sealed as long as the balance due has been paid and the landlord doesn’t object.

“Many landlords and collections attorneys actively use the expungement option to encourage renters to settle their debt and remove the eviction from their record,” the Kem C. Gardner report states. “This bill is meant to restore a tenant’s rental record and allow renters to find housing following a non-payment eviction.”

‘Not necessarily a direct factor’

Cullimore argued Utah’s eviction policies are “not necessarily a direct factor” contributing to Utah’s homelessness.

“People that are in apartment communities that do get evicted, certainly some probably end up homeless,” Cullimore. “But I wouldn’t say that the vast majority of the population that are homeless aren’t necessarily the result of evictions.”

He and another panelist, Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president who now serves as state homeless coordinator (the point person in Cox’s administration orchestrating state actions around homelessness) said homelessness is a complex issue that captures a variety of different people, not just those who fall on hard economic times, but also people suffering from mental illness, substance abuse or other issues that contribute to their situations.

“There’s certainly policies that we can look at as a state,” Cullimore said, but he pushed back on the idea that Utah’s landlord-tenant laws are a “direct causation of a lot of homelessness.”

Niederhauser said if someone is facing an eviction, “something’s wrong.”

“It’s not the core issue,” he said, arguing other factors can contribute to someone’s inability to pay their rent.

“Homelessness,” Niederhauser said, “is the catch-all for all of the problems in society.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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