Renters facing eviction don’t get enough help from new expungement law, advocates say

Renters facing eviction don’t get enough help from new expungement law, advocates say
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The C9 Flats apartments in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

The following story was supported by The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah renters can now erase past evictions off their records. If they paid their debt to their landlord and can file some paperwork to prove it, then they no longer have to worry about the doors to safe and stable housing being slammed in their faces.

Housing advocates are excited about the law but worry that the process isn’t that open and shut. Renters have to file four different forms and be prepared to appear in court if necessary, in a process that takes months to complete.

Even if renters have all the receipts to prove they paid their debt, landlords can still veto the expungement and don’t need to provide any proof or even explain why — under the law, a landlord could simply say “I object” in writing and the expungement will be shot down. By comparison, a criminal expungement bill passed in recent years only allows the objections of crime victims to be considered as one of multiple factors by a judge when deciding on an expungement. But if a landlord says no, then a judge has no choice but to disqualify an eviction expungement request.

The expungement bill itself was the product of a hard-won battle between housing advocates and landlords in the 2022 session. The bill established a process for many evictions to be expunged automatically in the future, but for evictions before July 1, 2022, renters have to file a petition to have the cases expunged.

Tolina Katoa, a community health worker, focused on housing with Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, or PIK2AR, worries that with automatic expungements years away from going into effect, many renters will struggle to jump through all the legal hoops necessary for the petition process.

“There are things being done, but it’s nothing that’s going to help in the here and now,” Katoa said. “And it’s the here and now that everybody needs to worry about.”

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project received court records dating from 1996 to the present identifying 15,224 eviction cases where the court dockets show the renter paid off their debt and satisfied the eviction judgment against them. Under the new law, all of these individuals could get their records wiped — but first, they need to jump through the hoops.

The Hoops

HB359, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, set up multiple paths for eviction expungements. Starting on July 1 of this year, new eviction cases will be flagged for automatic expungement if, after three years, certain conditions have been met — such as that the entire case was dismissed, no appeals are pending or if the parties settled the matter.

But those won’t kick in until 2025. In the meantime, renters who want to wipe an older eviction from their record have to make sure they have proof they’ve paid off their eviction judgment debt. Then they file a petition with the court and serve a copy to the landlord. The expungement also only applies to evictions for nonpayment of rent or if the renter stayed past their lease. People evicted for breaking apartment rules or the law can’t take advantage of the new expungement by the petition process.

Once all the forms are filed, the landlord has 60 days to file any objection — and again it can be any objection. The renter may need to attend a hearing in case the judge needs to review their proof of paying off the old debt. If there is no objection from the landlord, the expungement will be approved. But even then, it will take another 90 days for the records to be fully expunged and for credit bureaus to update their information.

Advocates like Yehemy Orozco of the Utah Housing Coalition are cautiously optimistic about the petition process, and she and her fellow advocates have already gotten to work helping clients petition to expunge their records. She says the law presents an incredible opportunity for renters to change their housing and change their lives in the process. She’s also pleased that the filings can be done for free.

Still, she says there are challenges.

“All the burden, all the work goes to the tenants,” Orozco said.

For example, she notes that tenants have to keep the paperwork that says their eviction was expunged. While the expungement will likely keep the record from showing up on checks from larger credit bureaus, smaller companies might not log the expungements. If a smaller company or apartment flags the expunged eviction, the renter then has to show the proof of expungement, which still is an admission of an old eviction happening and hurts the idea that expungement is a permanent erasure of an eviction.

Additionally, all these steps require internet access and the ability to easily understand and file legal documents with the court.

“If the tenant is not tech savvy, or if the tenant does not speak English, it is going to be very difficult for them,” Orozco said.

Consumer Privacy

While the bill removes the eviction record from the court record, it doesn’t affect records that might already be retained by landlords or their lawyers. As has previously been reported, the Law Offices of Kirk A. Cullimore have been known to keep a record that critics call a “black list” of renters that have had debts with the firm’s clients in the past. The firm denies the data constitutes a black list.

The law firm files roughly half of all eviction cases in court every year and firm principal Kirk Cullimore Jr. is an influential state senator from Sandy, while firm founder Kirk Cullimore Sr. has boasted of helping to write Utah’s landlord and tenant laws.

Cullimore Jr. co-sponsored the expungement bill after intense negotiations with the sponsor and housing advocates.

The Cullimore firm did not respond as to whether the firm would remove expunged eviction records from the firm’s internal database.

The bill originally sought to automatically expunge all eligible evictions that had been paid off, but the initial estimates showed that would add at least $2 million in costs for the state to the price tag of the bill.

“There isn’t some magic button we can press to vaporize all those cases,” says Utah courts spokesperson Tania Mashburn. She said it would either involve developing brand-new software or significant in-person review and processing of old cases.

“The fiscal impact of either one of those options would have resulted in [the bill] not passing,” Mashburn said.

Having been the state leader in eviction filings, the Cullimore firm has access to extensive renter data. Data from the state courts shows that only counting the firm’s major principals, Cullimore Senior and Cullimore Jr, that the father and son combined have appeared in 11,751 district court cases since 2000, primarily for evictions but also debt collections and related cases for the firm. Those numbers don’t account for thousands of other cases worked primarily by the firm’s other subordinate attorneys who have come and gone over the firm’s twenty-five-plus years of operation.

In a statement, Paul Smith head of the landlord lobby group, The Utah Rental Housing Association, states that under the law, the old evictions won’t appear on a credit check and that most landlords simply won’t do any further digging beyond that to look into a renter’s eviction history.

More importantly, Smith says, if they did, they would discover an expunged eviction meant the renter paid their debts.

“If a tenant had some issues but made it right, 99 out of 100 rental operators would want that person as a renter because their past performance indicates they learned a life lesson and turned over a new leaf,” Smith said.

Smith also credits landlords with actually wanting to expand the bill beyond its initial scope of just focusing on renters who had been evicted during the pandemic. He also believes that landlord objections will actually be rare, but giving landlord’s the ultimate say on expungement is justified as some landlords may have evicted a renter based on non-payment simply because that may have been easier at the time than evicting them for more serious issues like criminal activity.

Plus, Smith is also encouraged by another aspect of the law that allows expungements to be used as a way to help settle ongoing evictions.

“The eviction expungement process can be a great tool to help resolve debt and eliminate barriers to housing,” Smith said.

While Smith sees great potential in the legislation, Katoa, with PIk2AR, isn’t hopeful. She says the average individual won’t be able to complete the process without making a serious investment of time. She also says many in the Pacific Islander community are just wary of the reform, especially since it requires so much work for renters and a simple unexplained veto from the landlord to shut it all down.

“They literally set it up where once again it is in favor of the landlords,” Katoa said.

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