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LANDLORD FEES MAY BE HIGH, BUT SQUALOR IS MORE COSTLY

Up to a point, landlords and low-income advocates can be excused for opposing a proposal to force the owners of fewer than five rental units in Salt Lake City to obtain licenses and pay for inspections.

The plan is a radical departure from current practices, which allow people to rent a room here or there with little oversight.It would undoubtedly raise rents, although modestly. But even a modest increase would be painful to the poor. Anyone wanting to sublet the smallest of basement apartments would be subject to $103 yearly in fees. A city already suffering from a low-income housing crisis suddenly would get that much tighter.

If these were the only facts to consider, opposition to the plan would be easy. But there are other facts, and they tip the scales.

Mayor Deedee Corradini included this plan in her yearly budget recommendation, which is under consideration by the City Council. As a budget measure, it would generate revenue. But the plan isn't about money. It is about saving lives.

Consider that during the past five years the city has recorded no fire deaths in apartment buildings subject to regular inspections and licensing requirements. However, nine people have died in unregulated single-family rental units in only the past three years, and two of those were from fires caused by housing code violations.

Consider also that the city receives 1,825 complaints each year about living conditions in unregulated apartments, and 336 of those concerns matters that are threats to life and safety.

People who are poor and struggling need affordable housing, but they don't need dangerous housing. Allowing landlords to sublet squalid death traps in the name of affordable rent is no answer.

Instead, the answer lies in the types of public-private partnerships initiated in the past by the state and some local governments. For example, the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development's housing program has developed cooperatives among nonprofit agencies, businesses, banks and governments to increase the stock of affordable housing with little impact on public coffers.

Another section of Corradini's budget calls for $300,000 to go toward a housing demonstration project that would encourage developers to build units for people with a variety of income levels.

Unfortunately, the current pace of these programs won't keep up with the demand. On the same day people showed up to protest Corradini's proposal at City Hall, low-income advocates sent a letter to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Utah's congressional delegation concerning the state's overall housing crisis.

A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Utah workers must earn $9.21 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That is too much for 37 percent of the renters in the Provo-Orem area and 32 percent of those from Salt Lake City to Ogden.

The problem demands the attention and the best, most creative efforts of government and private business. But it does not demand that the state's largest city accept ghetto conditions as repositories for the poor.

People may legitimately argue about the amount of the fees, but the need for quality housing should be beyond debate.