In early 2021, the state of Utah received $215 million in rental assistance funding to help renters stay housed during the pandemic. But within the first few months, Utah had already fallen far behind the distribution rate intended for the program. On November 15, the U.S. treasury forced the state to submit a “Program Improvement Plan” after they determined that Utah had failed to meet its requirement of 65% distribution. With only 22% of their $215 million distributed by their fall deadline, Utah wasn’t even close.
By the end of 2021, the state had still not reached its fall requirement, distributing slightly less than half of the funds. To make things worse, if the U.S. treasury isn’t satisfied with Utah’s Program Improvement Plan, the federal government could take the money back and reallocate it to a different agency.
Housing insecurity is a reality for a growing number of Utah tenants, but the Department of Workforce Services —the state agency responsible for the rental assistance program — has refused to share a copy of their Program Improvement Plan with the people that it will affect the most.
The one thing the state has announced is that they have removed local non-profits like Salt Lake Community Action from the rental assistance process. DWS says it’s to streamline the program, but some community members think the decision is an attempt to save face rather than correct their mistakes.
“For anyone that isn’t comfortable with technology or doesn’t know how to navigate the internet, Community Action gave them a physical place to go to get their application processed with one-on-one help,” says an SLC resident who wished to remain anonymous.
“By cutting them out, they’ve made the relief less accessible to many of the people that need it most.”
Rent hikes continue
The rental assistance program was never intended to be a solution to the housing crisis in Utah, but it could help hundreds of thousands of working people. Some landlords, however, have seen this crisis — and the desperation it’s caused — as a perfect opportunity to increase their profits.
Downtown West, an SLC apartment complex, has raised its rent anywhere between $100 and $400 for all of its tenants after receiving almost $700,000 of rental relief funds from the state. The increased rent has forced many tenants into housing insecurity, as they begin the agonizing search for a more affordable place to live. All of this at a time when in Salt Lake City alone, 3,565 people go without shelter on any given night.
The state’s minimal effort to such an urgent need has pushed the community to fill in the gaps.
Tenants fight back
Volunteers from the Salt Lake Liberation Center have been doing outreach in the Fairpark and Downtown areas to offer assistance with the relief application process and connect with anyone facing housing insecurity. They’ve named the campaign “Assist and Resist.”
Cameron Haskins, a volunteer with the Liberation Center, says organizing with other renters in Salt Lake is the only option the state has left them.
“We can’t wait for this problem to get any worse. We’re in the middle of a brutal winter with multiple new COVID variants spreading, over 10,000+ COVID cases a day, but the state is still responding to the housing problem by evicting people who have nowhere else to go. If we don’t do anything, 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 took almost two months and there was no confirmation notice or update while I was waiting. 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 ramp up distribution.
“The biggest gains for working and oppressed people have been won when we organized and mobilized our communities. But we can’t stop with one win — we have to build a larger movement that broadens our demands of the government to cancel our rents, extend the eviction moratorium, and meet our basic needs as a working class.”
If you or someone you know in Utah is having trouble paying rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can fill out an application for rental assistance at rentrelief.utah.gov. The funding for this program comes directly from our tax money, and 100 percent of it should go back into the hands of Utah tenants.
Get in contact with organizers on the ground @pslsaltlake on Instagram and Twitter.
Photo: Volunteers with the Salt Lake Liberation Center speak to community members outside a store. Credit: Liberation News