As Utah Valley's housing shortage worsens and rents rise, the number of landlord/tenant conflicts is increasing.

Local housing officials say landlords are using the housing shortage to get the most rent possible from tenants. For the most part, officials can't blame them. After all, landlords are in the business to make money, not as a public service.But housing officials are being flooded with calls from tenants who say landlords are abusing their rights in order to increase rents.

"Complaining tenants has always been a problem, but nothing like it is now. It used to be something we dealt with some of the time. Now it is something we deal with most of the time," said Susan Griffiths, managing attorney of Utah Legal Services' Provo office.

Tenants' most common complaint is that landlords are unjustly accusing them of lease violations. A landlord can legally evict a tenant for violating a lease agreement.

With an old tenant out, a landlord can increase rent before accepting a new tenant.

"If they can find some reason to say that the tenant broke the lease, then they can get someone new to move in for $100 or $200 more a month. They are really motivated right now to find reasons to get tenants out," Griffiths said.

In fact, landlord/tenant complaints are so common that Utah Legal Services recently hired an additional law clerk to work 20 hours per week on such cases. Another attorney who used to spend about five hours a week onlandlord/tenant complaints is now spending about 30 hours a week on the problem.

Gene Carly, director of the Utah County Housing Authority, has noticed a similar problem in the county's rental assistance program.

"We have found that some landlords are not happy with the rents they're charging and want to raise them. But due to the programs they're involved in, they have limitations," Carly said.

Myla Dutton, director of the Community Action Agency, is receiving more than five calls a day from residents concerned about their housing situation. Most are fixed-income and low-income people who can't keep pace with rising rent.

"Some people who call don't really know what the housing situation is in Utah County. They are not aware of the shortage that exists. So when their landlord tells them he is going to raise their rent they are shocked to find out that they can't find another place to live," Dutton said.

Another common complaint of tenants is that landlords don't return cleaning and damage deposits. Utah law says when tenants move out, they must provide a landlord with a new address and a written request for return of deposit.

In order to withhold a deposit, a landlord must provide a detailed account of damages and deductions. If the landlord fails to do so he is liable for the deposit plus a $100 penalty.

Tenants can protect themselves against losing deposits by taking photographs of an apartment or home before moving in. They should consider having it inspected by a third party also.

Attorneys say tenants who feel cheated by landlords should not hesitate to file a complaint with small claims court.

However, some attorneys say landlord/tenant problems go both ways, with many tenants taking advantage of landlords. Some tenants are experts at delaying evictions through the court system.

It's not uncommon for a landlord to sue a tenant for several months back rent. The most common result is the landlord eating the rent and paying all the court costs because the tenant's financial condition insulates him or her against any judgment.

Griffiths agrees that some tenants take advantage of laws designed to protect them. But she believes those cases are rare. For the most part, she said, Utah's landlord/tenant laws are pro-landlord.

"There is a much greater risk to tenants than there is to landlords."

Attorneys at Utah Legal Services screen all complaints to determine if they are legitimate.

"We won't take a case just because a person says his landlord is doing terrible things," Griffiths said.


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Tenant rights:

- Violation of lease - five-day notice to correct violation or move out.

- Non-payment of rent - three-day notice to pay or move out.

- No cause - one-half of lease period notice to move out. On month-to-month lease, notice must be given 15 days prior to end of month.