What is it that turns a Salt Lake landlord into a slumlord? Money, say disgruntled tenants. Indeed, landlords themselves say the same - although the lack of it, not the want of it, leads their apartments into ruin.

City officials say many landlords are actually land speculators, buying rental properties and gambling that the value of the real estate on which the crumbling homes and apartments rest will increase in value.While tenants complain the rent they pay for a dilapidated room only lines their landlord's pocket - instead of paying for a lock on a communal bathroom door, for example - landlords say it goes to keep their businesses afloat.

Arvil Harris, who recently pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to repair three of his rental properties, said the city's real estate market and high utility bills evaporate money he needs to make repairs.

Waving a sheaf of records showing $1,200 in utility bills and $1,300 in rent revenue, Harris told the Deseret News, "You're just breaking even, you're spinning your wheels for nothing."

If he had the money, Harris said, it would go into correcting the 142 violations for which the city has cited his buildings, including dangerous wiring and structural deficiencies - all of which he blames on the city.

"It wasn't that way before the city come over. Since the city come over and made all these demands, I haven't put dollar one into it," he said. Threat of the city's condemnation has eliminated incentive for upkeep, he said.

What's more, zealous inspectors from the city's Building and Housing Divisionhave cited him for excruciatingly small violations, Harris said. Correcting themin one house alone would cost $35,000.

"They want to live by the letter of the (Building and Housing Code) . . . But sometimes you can't live by that code," he said.

Other landlords, like John W. Purdue, also accuse city housing inspectors of nit-picking them to death by citing them for small violations.

Purdue, convicted by a jury this year of three counts of failing to repair his rented homes, got into the housing business four decades ago, seeing what he called a need to provide low income housing in the city.

It was a bad decision. "I'm sorry I ever bought a piece of real estate," he said, blaming several boarded-up rental properties on incompetent inspectors who say he hasn't been making the necessary repairs on his properties.

Purdue also complains that many problems uncovered by inspectors come from tenant abuse. He recently requested a city inspection because one tenant "was tearing the hell out" of one of his rental units.

While Purdue and Harris have fought their battles with housing inspectors behind the scenes, one company's failure to maintain its apartment complex made local headlines.

Last month the city closed down the Smith Apartments, 228 S. Third East, because the owner, First National Security, failed to comply with a notice to repair a broken heating plant, leaving residents to rely on gas cooking stoves.

While one First National official said the company did everything possible to respond to the crisis, another official later said the company's efforts to maintain the building were thwarted by a $3 million lawsuit.

Kerry Rogers, of First National, said the company was created to help another floundering business, Bennett Leasing, subject of a lawsuit filed by Zions First National Bank. Zions sued Bennett for being overdue on a $3.3 million loan.

Rental revenue from the Smiths and other apartments bought last year by First National was to go toward the repair of the Smiths, but instead went to defend the company from Zions' "legal blitzkrieg," Rogers said.

John Adams, an attorney for Bennett, said the company plans to sue Zions for what he said was fraudulently inducing them to accept the loan.

While landlords blame their financial difficulties on inspectors who are sticklers for details for their housing problems, Building and Housing Division officials say problems arise because many landlords are opportunists.

"Speculation, it's the whole name of the game,," said Assistant Building and Housing Director Harvey Boyd. "Buy low and sell high."

Many residential properties, especially those in the east downtown, would make more profitable office properties, creating incentive to retain properties until they can be profitably sold for office development, Boyd said.

- Tomorrow: What can the city do?

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AVERAGE RENTS

Some inner city landlords say the low rent they collect - often less than $300 a month for rent and utilities - keeps them from making needed improvements.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average rent for rental units in the Salt Lake metropolitan area is:

Size Rent and utilities

Efficiency apartment $325

1-bedroom $390

2-bedroom $460

3-bedroom $575

4-bedroom $645