For Utah renters, escaping abuse can come at a cost

Apr 13, 2023, 10:31 PM | Updated: 10:59 pm

WEST JORDAN, UtahAfter reporting to police that he held her down and hit her, Jasmine Stanley believed taking her name off the lease for the apartment she shared with her ex would be simple.  

Instead, she told the KSL Investigators she faced a drawn-out court case that left her questioning her decision to move out. 

“A lot of times, it just made me feel like, why did I even leave, you know?” Stanley, 24, recalled. “I would be better off just staying in this place, if I’m going to be forced to pay for it.” 

She moved out in 2019 and court records show she turned in the paperwork required of victims who want to break a lease in Utah, including a police report with allegations of abuse. Her ex stayed behind in the apartment, she later wrote in a court filing, and when he stopped paying rent about three months later, the complex — Novi At Jordan Valley Station Apartments in West Jordan — sued them both to collect. 

While police took a report, he was not formally charged with a crime. 

“When you’re already trying to process things and deal with things, it’s hard enough,” Stanley said. “I don’t feel like a victim of violent crime should have to pay to get displaced, to like, no longer have a home, you know?”  

Her experience shows how hard it can be for tenants like her to make a fresh start. Utah allows renters to end their contracts because of relationship violence, but they need a protective order or a police report to do so, and landlords can require them to pay up in order to bow out. 

The cost under state law is equal to 45 days of rent – among the highest in the nation – but will soon drop to a single month’s rent under a new state law designed to ease the burden on victims. 

Many have few financial resources to their name. Relationship violence and financial abuse tend to go hand in hand, said Gabriella Archuleta, director of public policy for the YWCA of Utah. When a person escapes, she said, they often leave with almost nothing.   

“So, it’s not something where somebody just leaves the relationship and they’re fine and they move on with their life,” Archuleta said. “It’s picking up the pieces that have been slowly and over time, just, you know, completely shattered.” 

Paul Smith with the Rental Housing Association of Utah said it’s fair for property owners to charge a fee to those who need to break their lease to get out of harm’s way.  

Landlords can suffer property damage and lost rent, he noted, and neighbors and other tenants can feel unsafe. There are also costs associated with marketing the open apartment and finding a new tenant, Smith said. 

“Landlords are victims too,” Smith said. “We’re not equating them as equal, by any means. But there are activities and actions that create damage for the landlord.” 

Smith’s organization, which represents property owners, worked closely with advocates on the new changes, he said. In addition to reducing the fee, the new law expands eligibility (It will allow tenants to qualify if they have stalking injunctions and types of protective orders not previously accepted). 

The apartment complex declined comment through a spokesperson. 

Because her ex stayed behind in the apartment when she left, Stanley said she didn’t need to pay the 45-day fee.  

And a notice from Utah Legal Services seems to agree, stating, “One or more co-tenants remaining in the unit probably allows you to vacate without paying anything.” 

The existing law “did leave some room for interpretation,” said Jacob Kent, the nonprofit’s housing law supervisor. But the new law taking effect in May is clear, Kent added: The renter owes a month’s rent to buy out of their contract.   

Of the 27 states allowing early termination of a lease due to domestic violence, a handful, including neighboring Colorado, charge a similar amount. Others won’t end a lease until the end of the following month, but many require no payment at all, according to a 2018 analysis from the National Housing Law Project, the most recent available. 

It’s not clear how many eviction cases in Utah have a tie to domestic violence, but advocates told KSL they regularly help clients get out of leases and pay off eviction debts, using a mix of public money and private funding.   

One source is the Home Safe fund, a combination of state money and contributions from the Intermountain Health and the Utah-based Crocker Catalyst Foundation.  

The fund can help pay back rent or eviction-related costs or assist with deposits and utilities.  The average request for help from Home Safe is $1,263, with more than $216,000 paid out since July 2022, according to figures provided by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, which oversees the program.  

Even small payments can mean the difference between securing housing and not having a place to stay, Archuleta said.  

Utah Rep. Marsha Judkins, who sponsored the 2023 law, noted a 2022 survey of homeless children and adults found more than 1 in 4 in her own Utah County were survivors of domestic violence, a bit higher than the rate statewide.  

The Provo Republican said those numbers are alarming.  

“People from every community are suffering from homelessness,” Judkins said, “and oftentimes it’s because of domestic violence.” 

The lawsuit naming Stanley was eventually dismissed in 2021 due to inactivity in the case, court records show. And while she wasn’t ordered to pay anything, the toll was profound, she said.  

Her stress and anxiety made it hard to go to work, eat, sleep and leave the house. She had panic attacks, she remembered. 

She now has a job with a credit card company and said she’s in a good relationship with someone new, but she wipes away tears when she talks about the case.  

“You’re making, like, a giant leap forward,” Stanley said. “But then there’s all these like little things that kind of grab you and like pull you back.”  

Domestic violence resources

If you or someone you know is going through abuse, help is available.

  • Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465).
  • Resources are also available online at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition website.

There are several ways the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition can help people. Previous examples include providing financial assistance for funerals, for moving, for a variety of things, counseling that help people find a different path or stay healthy and safe and the relationship they’re in.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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For Utah renters, escaping abuse can come at a cost