Renters in Utah don’t have much protection — as these Provo tenants found out the cold way

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rylyn Patterson, Shayla Patterson, Mike Youd, Joe Piret, Jordan Atkin and Stormie Atkin pose for a portrait outside their Provo apartment building, which is currently without heat, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018.

The heat in your apartment has been shut off for eight weeks because of a carbon monoxide leak. You have a space heater, but it blows the fuse if you use the toaster. And your landlord has stopped answering your calls.

What can you do? Not much, thanks to Utah laws that favor landlords over tenants.

As a group of Provo renters recently found out, renters must continue to pay rent on substandard housing — including units without heat — or face eviction.

Rebecca Brinkerhoff’s heat was shut off Dec. 8 after the boiler in the basement of her apartment complex was leaking dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Dominion Gas employees who came to check the leak said the boiler was 30 years old and should’ve been replaced years ago, she said.

“I was shocked,” Brinkerhoff said. The level of carbon monoxide being emitted was enough to make people sick, she said.

As the gas company inspected the boiler and shut off the building’s gas line, tenants unsuccessfully tried to contact their landlord, Jeff Harman, to let him know what was happening and ask what to do while they didn’t have heat.

Harman eventually sent an email to all the tenants at 9:43 p.m., nearly 11 hours after the gas leak began. By then, Brinkerhoff and fellow tenants Stormie Atkin and Courtney Beutler had talked to all the other tenants in the eight-unit apartment. They also taped a sign to the front door explaining the gas leak and lack of heat, plus a warning not to use the building’s dryer, which the gas company said was not properly vented and posed a fire hazard.

“We wanted everyone to know what had happened,” Atkin said. “I don’t think it’s fair to have someone walk into their apartment and not know why the heat is off.”

In his email, Harman said the repairs would take anywhere from a day to two weeks. But It was later discovered that the electrical system was so outdated that the building would first have to be rewired and updated — several weeks’ worth of work that didn’t begin until Jan. 18.

So for the past two months, tenants have relied on space heaters that Harman gave them. But the tenants argue that they’re hazardous and unreliable, thanks in part to the building’s old wiring.

“If you have the toaster going and the heater going, it’ll blow a fuse,” tenant Jordan Atkin said. “You pretty much can’t have anything else on and commit to just having your heater on.”

Atkin only uses his space heater when he’s at home, and for short periods of time because of the fire risk.

Other tenants echo that concern, and confusion over who would cover increased electric bills resulted in most tenants not using the space heaters through much of December.

“Some of them are going to be warm because they’re using the space heaters, and some of them are going to be cold because they haven’t utilized them,” Harman said.

In Provo, prospective landlords must have their buildings inspected to ensure minimum health and safety standards — heat, plumbing, hot and cold water, smoke detectors and whether the windows can open — before they can start renting.

Harman, according to Provo’s community development department, does not have the required rental-dwelling license, and the building has not been inspected since before 2003. Harman bought the building in August 2017.

Harman said he was not aware he needed a rental license and is planning on applying for a license once the heat is restored.

After more than a month with no heat, almost half of Harman’s tenants decided they had had enough, and on Jan. 16 gave him 10 days’ notice — a method called constructive eviction.

Under Utah law, tenants can break their contract and move out with less notice than required in their lease if the conditions of a rental pose a threat to health and safety and the landlord hasn’t swiftly resolved the issue.

The landlord has to return the full security deposit and, theoretically, cannot sue the tenants for the rent on the rest of their contracts.

Constructive eviction can be used only by tenants who are current on their rent, according to Utah’s Fit Premises Act.

While withholding rent might seem like an effective way to motivate a landlord to make repairs, it strips tenants of all legal protections. They can be evicted and sued for triple the cost of the rent, plus court fees. The eviction will appear on any background or credit check.

Another Provo tenant, who asked to not be named, tried to pay Harman less rent because of the lack of heat — and was evicted on Feb. 1.

Tenants who are current on their rent can instead fix the problem themselves if they follow a specific process.

First, they must give the landlord written notice of the issue. If it has to do with habitability (no power, water or heat), the landlord has three days to fix it. If the landlord doesn’t, the tenants can arrange to fix the problem — and once the repairs have been made, they can tell their landlord they’re paying reduced rent to offset the costs.

Tenants are rarely successful using this, said Martin Blaustein, managing attorney with Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit that offers legal services for noncriminal charges to low-income Utahns.

Tenants can “follow all the rules in the hope there’s going to be an offset in the rent, but there’s no guarantee,” he said.

Even if tenants feel they had the right to withhold rent after fixing a problem, or to just move out, the landlord can take the tenant to court, where a judge may rule the tenant was not justified.

Utah Legal Services receives as many as nine cases a day dealing with landlord/tenant issues. According to Blaustein, a third of those cases deal with units that are not habitable.

In Utah, Blaustein said, laws are skewed in favor of landlords. “The Legislature is full of landlords so they’re going to make laws that protect themselves,” he said.

The easiest way for Utahns to get help with landlord disputes is by calling 211. Run by the United Way, the hotline connects Utahns to community and government agencies across the state. It’s free and confidential.

Harman said that his tenants’ mid-January “constructive eviction” was within their rights — but wouldn’t rule out taking legal action against them.

The other half of Harman’s tenants are choosing not to move out.

For Joseph Piret, who lives in a basement apartment next to the broken boiler, it’s because he doesn’t have the money — or the time — to search for another apartment.

He will graduate from college in April with a degree in teaching and is student teaching, which makes getting a second job impossible. He receives money from Veterans Affairs for a disability he received when he was in the Army, but the amount after rent barely covers food, gas and internet for school, he said.

He hopes after he graduates, he’ll get a teaching job and a real income and will be able to finally leave.

Until then, he said, “No matter how bad the conditions get, financially I am stuck.”