SALT LAKE CITY — As they rushed to find somewhere to stay and frantically packed up belongings Thursday, residents of a condemned Salt Lake apartment complex said it has been plagued for years by disrepair and squatters who sometimes turn violent.
Several said that despite help from the city, they will struggle to find new housing they can afford. Among those given five days to evacuate were Michael Cousert, a 15-year resident of Georgia Apartments who is accustomed to high-pressure situations.
"Stressed," the retired U.S. Marine and esophageal cancer patient replied when asked how he was feeling.
"It's like, why me?" Cousert said as he packed his oxygen tanks, bedding, medication and other belongings inside his first-floor apartment. "I wanted to put my paperwork in and work on getting across the street," he said, motioning toward a Salt Lake County senior housing complex. Several church friends hauled boxes and garbage bags filled with his things to a temporary apartment nearby.
In the hallway outside, floor-length windows had been pulled from their frames.
Cousert, 67, said more people in recent years have broken in and camped there as police have cracked down on crime and homelessness in the Rio Grande neighborhood about 5 miles north. Cousert has picked up as many as 40 syringes from the property in a single day and once looked out his bathroom window to see a woman defecating on the ground, he said.
Figures provided by Salt Lake City confirm the hazards. In 2018, Salt Lake police recorded nearly 650 incidents of drug problems, fights, domestic disturbances, trespassing and other issues — about a threefold increase from a year earlier.
Several residents said owner Carol Lunt has helped with small repairs but failed to address larger concerns. Lunt, who could be seen walking around the property on Thursday, retreated into a second-story apartment and declined comment.
"I cannot, I just can't," she said before shutting and locking the door.
City officers say they had no choice but to slap red-tag flyers on windows and demand residents move out after Lunt ignored repeated notices to bring the complex up to fire and safety standards since 2017. They identified exits blocked by junk, nonworking heat, unsafe electrical wiring, missing smoke detectors and sprinkler pipes they believed were frozen.
"I think it needed to happen," said LouAnn Sessions, 61, who was moving out Thursday with her dog Lacy, a 10-year-old Jack Russell-schnauzer. She said Lunt arranged to fix smaller problems but not a ceiling caving in over the toilet in her apartment. She was planning to pick up keys to a senior housing complex later in the day.
"There's a bright side to everything," she said. "I couldn't get any lower, so I'm climbing out now."
Aaron Hirtler, 34, a resident of seven years, was less optimistic. As a felon, he has a harder time securing leases. He had a lead on one apartment Thursday, but rent would be about $200 higher than the current $750 for a one-bedroom unit at the Georgia Apartments, 203 E. 2100 South.
City officers on Monday told Hirtler and tenants of 30 other apartments they had three days to evacuate, but later extended the deadline to Saturday.
"I've needed to get out of here for ages because it's a horrible place to live," Hirtler said, recounting how flooded radiators have at times sent water raining into his apartment. "I've still got nowhere to go."
His neighbors, Amber and Robert Gardner, parents of three young daughters, were preparing Thursday to move to a new apartment nearby after a landlord heard of their dilemma and offered them a discount. It means their daughters — Sara, 9, Autum, 8 and Lita, 7 — don't have to change schools, Amber Gardner said.
In the two years they lived in the building, "we've made a lot of enemies. We were the ones that would call the cops, everything from domestic violence to vagrants in the hallway to drug transactions in the courtyard," she said.
Robert Gardner said he went to the laundry room one night to find several people sleeping there. One of the men lunged at him when he told the group to leave and the two got into a fight that left a gash in his left hand, he said.
Even before he and his wife moved out on Thursday, they were already discussing how to divvy up bedrooms in their new home.
"I feel so happy," he said, "but I feel so bad for everyone else."