Renters in Salt Lake City have more rights than anywhere in Utah, but housing advocates worry that no one knows.
With rents rising and nearly all the city's apartments occupied, landlords naturally are in a position to intimidate or to ignore repairs. Tenants, worried they can't find another place to live, may be afraid to complain.One year ago, the City Council passed a landmark ordinance allowing tenants to make repairs on their own and to deduct the costs from the rent. The ordinance also restricts landlords from evicting people in retaliation for complaints.
Bruce Plenk, an attorney for Utah Legal Services who often represents tenants, said the ordinance makes life easier for renters once they learn about it.
"Before, there was never anything for tenants to do about problems," he said. "This ordinance has at least given tenants some leverage. But the biggest problem overall is no one knows about it."
City officials acknowledge few of the people who could benefit from the ordinance are aware of it.
"We're not doing the kind of outreach we should," said Jim Davis, the city's housing coordinator. "When the council passed the ordinance, they didn't provide a distribution plan."
Landlords are supposed to distribute copies of the ordinance to their tenants, but city officials aren't sure even the landlords are being notified.
As a result, few renters are aware that their landlords have to fix certain items within a specific time period. Nor are they aware landlords can't just walk into an apartment without first giving the renter 24-hour notice.
"No one is getting a copy, so no complaints are being made," said Steve Erickson, a spokesman for Utah Issues, which lobbies on behalf of the poor.
Some people have complained of abuses since the ordinance took effect. City officials say all those complaints were resolved without having to prosecute landlords. Another ordinance passed at the same time made it illegal for tenants not to pay rent. No one has been prosecuted under that law either, city officials said.
Erickson said he wants the city to send a letter to all landlords informing them of the law and of their responsibilities to inform their renters.
Davis agrees a mailing is a good idea. The city already has translated the ordinance into Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish and Laotian. But he said the city can't afford to distribute it.
"We have 38,000 apartment units in the city. That translates into about 10,000 apartment owners," he said. "That's the size of the postage bill."
Mailings are further complicated by the fact many landlords live out of state.
Instead, the city is trying to creatively distribute the law, using housing inspectors, police and firefighters to hand out copies while responding to problems.