With the shrinking number of available low-income housing units, some say the demise of the Smith Apartments, whose last tenants left Monday, is a pathetic illustration of Salt Lake City's housing crisis.
The apartments, 230 S. Third East, were closed Feb. 13 after the owner, First National Leasing Inc., failed to comply with a city order to fix the building's heat, leaving low-income tenants to rely on gas cooking stoves.First National on Friday told Mountain Fuel to turn off the gas to the tenants who were staying there in violation of a city closure notice. A company official said he wants no more tenants in the four-story building.
"I've been as nice to these people as possible and they're going to have to leave, time's up," said Dave Lehmberg, property manager for First National. "The gas situation was just a reminder to let them know I don't want them to be there anymore."
Monday afternoon, some of the 11 remaining tenants who stayed in the building after the city's closure notice packed their belongings to take to relative's homes or housing provided by the city.
"Somebody's gotta do something about these slumlords. Everybody acts like it never happens, but this has been going on for six months," said Robert Smith, who, with his wife Linda, lived on the first floor of the apartment building.
Smith, who is not related to the apart-ment owners, said the owners were unresponsive when tenants complained that repairs were needed. "Cheap paint and a paint brush was their idea of a repair job," he said.
Even city officials acknowledge city ordinances must be strengthened to permit valuable housing from spiraling into disrepair, forcing tenants to live in the squalid conditions prevalent at the Smith Apartments.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done on the city's housing program. There's a lot of little holes that allow people to fall through," Assistant Building and Housing Director Harvey Boyd said.
For example, the Smith Apartments, occupied primarily by low-income people, were found unfit for habitation by the city, and because First National Leasing failed to upgrade the complex, the city was forced to remove the tenants.
"It's a real problem we have when you enforce as actively as we have on these older buildings; inevitably you're going to have somebody displaced and you're going to have to find some places for them," Boyd said.
"This situation we've had here with the Smith Apartments shows where we have a major problem in our programs, we need to be a lot more responsive," Boyd said.
But some of the responsibilities for meeting the needs of low-income tenants must be met by landlords, too, Boyd said.
"I think (the landlords) have paramount responsibility. Particularly if they've allowed their buildings to fall into disrepair," he said.
In Salt Lake City, landlords have little responsibility for upkeep, while in other cities there are much strong-er housing ordinances to protect the tenant and the landlord.
"I personally would like to see us do some work in that realm," he said.
The city found shelter for the former Smith tenants who moved out of the apartment on Monday.
"We're obviously responding to a human crisis here," said Pete Suazo, executive assistant to Mayor Palmer DePaulis.
Some residents moved in with relatives, while others found housing through the Salt Lake Housing Authority, which offers housing subsidies to low-income renters. Others may be temporarily housed in the city's homeless shelter.
Meanwhile, First National Leasing will try to sell the building. Lehmberg said the building has caused too many problems and captured too much media attention.
"The point is now the building is closed, I just don't want to have any more hassle with it. I'm going to board it up and forget about it," he said.
"I feel like we're the charity house of Salt Lake," he added, saying that the company has permitted some tenants to live there even while they owed thousands in back rent.