While Salt Lake housing officials recognize a need for a policy to combat problem housing and negligent landlords, perhaps the clearest call for help comes from tenants of the buildings themselves.
"Somebody's gotta do something about these slumlords," said one tenant as he carried his belongings from an apartment closed by the city this winter.With nearly 11,400 of the city's rental units and 6,431 of owned houses below federal housing standards (see chart), Mayor Palmer DePaulis has said Salt Lake City is in the throes of a "housing crisis."
The city has responded from a number of quarters to answer the plea made by low-income tenants. Officials convened a housing conference in January to discuss a far-ranging plan of action.
One idea born from the conference is to create a Housing Repair Fund composed of $600,000 in federal grant money to help landlords make repairs, said Assistant Building and Housing Director Harvey Boyd.
"A lot of landlords get the attitude, `the heck with it,' " Boyd said, referring to instances when properties deteriorate so far that landlords give up on rehabilitating their buildings.
"In those situations, we want to intervene before a building has to be closed," he said. The $600,000 fund would offer low-interest loans to landlords for making needed repairs.
Currently, landowners can get financial assistance up to $1,500 and from $9,000 to $17,500 for making repairs on their property through various city and private programs.
But because of the income levels upon which many programs are based, little assistance is available for repairs costing from $1,500 to $9,000, creating what Boyd calls a housing repair gap that could be filled by the repair fund.
Landlords would welcome the city's assistance, particularly since the city competes heavily with low-income housing landlords via its Housing Authority. Instead of supporting the Housing Authority, the city should be assisting the private sector, they say.
If instead of spending tax dollars on its own city Housing Authority projects, the city offered 3 percent or 4 percent loans to landlords, "then we could do it," said Ar-vil Harris, who recently pleaded guilty to failing to repair three rental properties.
The city is taking other measures to combat housing neglect. Following the high-profile closure of the Smith Apartments because owners failed to repair a furnace, DePaulis said the city should draft tougher landlord-tenant laws.
DePaulis called for an "equitable and reasonable" landlord-tenant law that would "allow the landlords to keep those apartments heated and habitable in a clean and safe way."
Housing officials are working to draft such a measure, based in part on successful landlord-tenant ordinances from other metropolitan areas.
While the Smith Apartments became an example of housing neglect in the city, there remains another, more positive, chapter in the story of the building.
The state is considering buying the building with some federal assistance to turn the dilapidated Smiths into a center for the severely mentally and physically handicapped.
Landlords say the city also could help by calling off or better educating the troop of housing inspectors who enforce the city's building and housing regulations.
"The only thing that the city could do is train their personnel," said John W. Purdue, who has been convicted of three counts of failing to make repairs on his properties that he says are unnecessary.
But the city's tough enforcement hand is a necessity that, unfortunately, occasionally ends in the closure of a building, said city Building and Housing Director Roger Evans.
"We see housing in a state of decline and the reason we're strong on enforcement is that without it, this decline would be very rapid," Evans said.