Tenants at Salt Lake City’s Georgia Apartments brace for Thursday, when the fire department says they must be out of their homes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Coffey was quite happy with his apartment at the Georgia Apartments in South Salt Lake, until he got noticed yesterday, that the Salt Lake City Fire Department "red tagged" the apartment complex, giving tenants 72 hours to vacate their apartments. Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

A few days ago, Richard Coffey moved into his apartment in Salt Lake City, where he’d also work as a janitor for the complex.

The building was rough, he said, littered with trash, graffiti and broken windows, but he thought the brick facade, newer tile and exposed piping in units had potential if he could clean the place up and if someone did some remodeling.

But by Thursday all tenants have to be out, after the city fire department “red tagged” the Georgia Apartments complex because of heating systems and smoke alarms that don’t work, electrical wiring systems that are not up to standards and sprinkler pipes that are at risk of freezing due to numerous broken windows and doors.

“My project today is those tires," Coffey said, gesturing out his living room windows to several sitting on the ground in the snow-covered courtyard below. “But since the news, I’m kind of not doing much."

Salt Lake County Health Department inspection reports for the apartments, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a records request, show that people have complained about methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia, accumulating garbage and used needles and a lack of hot water and heat since January 2018.

In each case, department spokeswoman Pam Davenport said, landlord Carol Lunt had addressed the issue.

Salt Lake City Fire Department Division Chief Ryan Mellor said his department had worked with Lunt since 2017 to also address fire code issues in the complex. He said the department had noted some improvement — for instance, she had fixed a faulty sprinkler system — but other problems weren’t repaired.

An attempt to reach Lunt by phone Tuesday was not successful.

“The decision to evacuate residents from the Georgia Apartments was not taken lightly,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski posted on Facebook. “For more than a year, the city has been working with the building owner to make this building safe to no avail.”

It is not uncommon for the department to red-tag buildings, Mellor said. But the tagged buildings are typically commercial properties, he said, and in most cases, problems are fixed quickly so few people are affected and the public may not notice the action.

The broken windows and doors at the Georgia Apartments became a serious concern once temperatures dropped this winter, Mellor said, because cold air could get in and potentially freeze the pipes of the sprinkler system. And the department no longer believed Lunt was “dealing with us in good faith,” he said.

But he added that the red tag isn’t a permanent eviction. If Lunt brings the complex into compliance with the fire code, tenants can go back into their homes.

“The human side of [closing the building] is tragic,” Mellor said, “but if we had allowed those people to stay in that building, even by having a fire watch in there, there’s some risk. ... If something goes wrong in that building, we’re going to be having a very different conversation.”

He alluded to the 2016 Oakland, Calif., Ghost Ship warehouse tragedy, where a man illegally rented out space to people in an unsafe building and 36 were killed when it caught fire.

Since that fire, Mellor said city and county officials have instructed the fire department to try to make sure that doesn’t happen here.

“By making those people leave, we prevented a much much greater tragedy,” he said.

The city is working with two housing authorities to find affordable housing for the renters, as well other housing locators to help residents who have criminal backgrounds. Many residents were paying rents much cheaper than the county average.

Of the 42 units in the complex, tenants from 20 have come to the city for help finding a place to stay, said Tony Milner, who works with the Neighborhood Development Department. Officials determined Tuesday that 17 units in the apartment were vacant, leaving five households for them to contact.

Finding housing and getting paperwork processed will likely take a week or two, Milner said. He hopes family and friends will allow tenants to stay with them in the meantime.

Milner said since the news of Monday’s red-tag notice spread, he had received many calls from people offering rental assistance, boxes, moving help and even temporary homes for renters. So far, he’s accepted the boxes and moving assistance, but he’s waiting to hear back from community partners, such as The Road Home, to see what housing is available for tenants and what rent help he can muster from nonprofits and other groups.

Coffey, who said he pays $700 a month for his two-bedroom unit, believes there aren’t affordable homes available and suspects most displaced renters will end up in homeless shelters.

For him, this is just another unfortunate circumstance in a life recently full of them, he said. He moved to the complex after the company he worked for closed, and he lost his previous apartment because computer illiteracy prevented him from applying for unemployment, he said.

He hasn’t yet gone a block over to the Salt Lake County Government Center, where city officials have set up to work with tenants. He said surely someone he knows will give him a place to stay.

The longer term plan, he said, is to hope Lunt fixes things. Otherwise, “I’m going down with the ship.”

Tenant Christy Carlson, who was packing her belongings Tuesday, said she had gone to city officials for help finding a place for her and her son. She said he’s applying for Job Corps and feeling enough stress without the added hinderance of being homeless.

“We haven’t heard anything back [from city officials], so I’m not really sure how that’s going to pan out,” she said.

In the year since she moved in, Carlson said she’d seen some “horrifying” things. Salt Lake City police reported that, from 2017 into 2018, calls for drug problems, fights, domestic disturbances, trespassing and other crimes at the complex increased from 213 to 647.

“It’s no place for anybody to be,” she said. But for some, herself included, it’s what they can afford.

Carlson said she has to be hopeful that she and her son will find a place to live, with the city’s help. Standing in the cold Tuesday afternoon, she gave a friend a heart-shaped piece of art and told her to do the same.

The friend said she had been evicted from the apartments in October and is headed to jail for a 90-day sentence in March.

The two women hugged and shed some tears as they said goodbye. They vowed to make a trip to Wendover together someday, when either of them could afford it.

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