In early 2021, the state of Utah received $215 million in rental subsidies to help renters stay housed during the pandemic. But within the first few months, Utah had fallen far short of the program’s intended payout ratio. On November 15, the US Treasury Department forced the state to submit a “program improvement plan” after finding that Utah had failed to meet its 65% distribution requirement. With just 22% of its $215 million distributed by the fall deadline, Utah wasn’t even close.
By the end of 2021, the state still hadn’t met its fall needs and was distributing a little less than half of the funds. To make matters worse, if the US Treasury Department isn’t happy with Utah’s program improvement plan, the federal government could take the money back and reallocate it to another agency.
Home insecurity is a reality for a growing number of Utah renters, but the Department of Workforce Services — the state agency responsible for the Rent Assistance Program — has declined to share a copy of its program improvement plan with the people who will be most affected.
The only thing the state has announced is that they have removed local nonprofits like Salt Lake Community Action from the rental support process. DWS says it’s meant to streamline the program, but some community members think the decision is more of an attempt to save face than to correct their mistakes.
“For anyone who wasn’t tech savvy or didn’t know how to navigate the web, Community Action gave them a physical place to go to have their application processed with in-person assistance,” says an SLC resident who wished to remain anonymous.
“By cutting them out, they created the relief fewer accessible to many of the people who need it most.”
Rent increases continue
The Rent Assistance Program was never intended as a solution to Utah’s housing crisis, but it could help hundreds of thousands of working people. However, some landlords have seen this crisis — and the desperation it has caused — as a perfect opportunity to boost their profits.
Downtown West, an SLC condo complex, has increased its rent for all of its tenants between $100 and $400 after receiving nearly $700,000 in rental assistance funds from the state. Rising rents have pushed many tenants into housing insecurity as they embark on the agonizing search for affordable housing. All of this at a time when 3,565 people are homeless every night in Salt Lake City alone.
The state’s minimal effort for such an urgent need has prompted the community to fill in the gaps.
Tenants fight back
Volunteers from the Salt Lake Liberation Center have reached out to the Fairpark and Downtown areas to offer assistance applying for relief and to connect with everyone affected by home insecurity. You called the campaign “Assist and Resist”.
Cameron Haskins, a Liberation Center volunteer, says organizing with other Salt Lake tenants is the only option the state has given them.
“We cannot wait for this problem to get worse. We are in the middle of a brutal winter with multiple new COVID variants spreading, more than 10,000 COVID cases per day, but the state is still responding to the housing problem by expelling people who have nowhere else to go. If we do nothing, more and more people will continue to suffer. We have to help each other and fight back.”
Denise Weaver, a Utah resident and mother, completed the rental assistance process on her own.
“It has taken almost two months and there has been no confirmation notification or update while I waited. I wouldn’t have known what to do next if that check hadn’t come in the mail.”
Deja Gaston, another Liberation Center volunteer, said the group plans to pressure the DWS office to release their program improvement plan to the public and expedite distribution.
“The greatest gains for working and oppressed people have come when we have organized and mobilized our communities. But we cannot stop with victory – we must build a larger movement that expands our demands on the government to cut our rents, extend the moratorium on evictions and meet our basic needs as a working class.”
If you or someone you know in Utah is struggling to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can fill out a Rent Assistance Application at rentrelief.utah.gov. Funding for this program comes directly from our tax dollars and should go 100 percent back into the hands of Utah renters.
Connect with the local organizers @pslsaltlake on Instagram and Twitter.
Photo: Salt Lake Liberation Center volunteers speak to parishioners outside a store. Photo Credit: Liberation News