Septic sludge used to drip from the ceiling into Jeremy Arrieta’s apartment when he lived at Solara Apartments in Salt Lake City’s west side. A video he took from the summer of 2020 shows dark beads of feces-tinged water leaking through the bathroom ceiling above, sprinkling his own toilet in brown water.
“Worst apartment I’ve ever lived in,” an exasperated Arrieta can be heard saying on the video.
Interviewed recently about his experience, Arrieta said the apartment’s problems went far beyond just the plumbing. A fatal shooting the previous winter on the grounds outside meant he mainly stayed inside, where he only had to contend with the cockroaches.
Things got so bad he broke his lease and left a year ago. Now he’s facing a debt collection lawsuit from Solara’s attorneys, the Law Offices of Kirk Cullimore. The firm handles approximately half of all evictions in the state and counts powerful state Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, as a firm principal.
Arrietta left his apartment as the federal government was starting to work to keep renters off the streets when the economy ground to a halt as COVID-19 hit. During the pandemic, Solara underwent a name change to Downtown West and put up a sleek website touting its convenient location and modern amenities, telling would-be renters they’d be “excited to come home each night.”
The apartment complex also received more federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program aid from the state than any other — $694,696 to cover residents’ rent payments as of November, according to records from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Utah Investigative Journalism Project reporters visiting the complex spoke with more than a dozen renters and failed to turn up a single good review.
Residents pointed out shoddy stairs, strange smells and suspicious people in basement level units where broken smoke detectors blared.
They noted stairwells where individuals experiencing homelessness would camp out at night.
Missing windows covered with cardboard were spotted across the compound, and one stairway banister was held together by yellow caution tape.
All across the compound, renters said in English and Spanish — like repeating a mantra — that management “wouldn’t fix anything.”
Nevertheless, renters were told in November to expect increases between $100 and $400 monthly to renew their leases.
Taking advantage of a recent sunny afternoon for a quick smoke break, Jason Bryner reeled off his experiences as a Solara resident. While management hired a security company to patrol the complex after a shooting in March 2021, crime was still prevalent. Someone stole his truck in October.
“For a while, police were here every weekend,” he said, mostly responding to complaints about fights.
Records of Salt Lake City Police department dispatches to the complex show officers kept busy at Downtown West. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, 2021, the department had 1,122 calls for service to the complex. That includes 21 calls for shots fired, 39 stolen vehicle calls, eight calls about drug dealers and 156 calls about fights, including domestic violence incidents.
While Bryner says his rent went up over $200, management was still dragging their feet on sending exterminators to deal with mice and roaches.
“I’ve been on a waitlist list for two and a half months now,” he said.
A resident of another nearby apartment, Chris Bailey, also complained of problems with mice and roaches, along with a neighbor who pounds on the roof at midnight most nights, frightening his two young children awake. For his two-bedroom apartment, he said rent was going up from $1,080 to $1,380.
Bailey was lugging a stereo into the back of a U-Haul truck, prompting a reporter to ask if he was moving out.
Pacific Ardent Capital, a California-based company under the umbrella of Laguna Point Properties, owns the Solara complex along with 5,000 other rental units across the country. It did not respond to requests for comment.
The Cullimore law firm was also contacted but did not respond to emailed questions.
Boom and Busted
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy overall, it helped supercharge the housing market. In Utah, that market was already accelerating before the spread of COVID-19 beginning in late 2019 and early 2020.
Utah’s housing market broke multiple records in the past year, according to the State of the State’s Housing Market report released in October by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
Home prices in the second quarter of 2021 increased 28.3%, second in the nation only to Idaho. Part of this was existing demand, and part of it was a result of interventions from the Federal Reserve meant to stave off economic depression by pumping cash into the banking system. By lowering interest rates and buying bonds, its policies allowed more low-interest loans to homebuyers.
The demand for homes only worsened as the pandemic disrupted the global supply chain making it hard for homebuilders to get construction materials.
The heightened demand drove median home prices in Salt Lake County to a record $540,000 over the summer. Increased home prices also mean apartments can charge higher rents.
According to the housing market report, Utah saw double-digit rent increases for the first time since the Great Recession and vacancy rates haven’t been this low in 16 years.
For Gardner Institute Senior Research Fellow Dejan Eskic the unfortunate reality is that these increases can often hurt low-income renters, who may lack the credit or savings for a down payment to even attempt to buy a home.
“When you are at the bottom, you’re stuck renting,” Eskic said. “You are really at the mercy of the landlord, for lack of a better word.”
It’s a point echoed by Amy Rowland, president of the Community Development Finance Alliance of Utah, which helps finance and develop affordable housing.
“It’s nearly always the case that the rents for housing of the very worst quality in a particular market area are not significantly less than the rents for much nicer, well-located units,” Rowland wrote in an email, adding that bad credit, prior evictions, and criminal records often make these renters especially vulnerable. “Frankly, the for-profit landlords who own the really low-quality units prey on the desperation of their tenants.”
While rent in Salt Lake County increased 12% on average, according to Realtor.com, the rent hikes reported by tenants at Downtown West were more than double that — between 25 and 27% — and to renters least able to afford it.
Paul Smith, head of the state landlord lobby group the Utah Apartment Association, said the federal rental assistance has been an incredible boon for landlords, renters and the overall economy.
“They are helping the renter and the economy of Utah by allowing money that would have been spent on rent to flow to restaurants and other businesses and save or create jobs!” Smith wrote. “Landlords who have helped the most people for this federal rental assistance should be thanked, not vilified.”
He points to a 2019 National Apartment Association survey showing landlords on average only see a 9% profit margin. Considering that thin margin and inflation, supply chain woes and labor shortages, he said, landlords have little choice but to raise rents.
“[Landlords] feel compelled to raise rents as high as the market will bear,” Smith wrote.
Renters noted that the complex put in amenities in the common areas like cement pingpong tables and new doors in some of the buildings, but didn’t feel like the upgrades justified the increased rents.
While Laguna Point Properties did not comment for this story, the company’s website discusses their company strategy, touting to investors the strength of the rental market because “The ‘American Dream’ of homeownership is out of reach for many,” especially “working class renters” who can’t realistically buy a home.
The website stresses these investments are not impacted by construction concerns like more high-end apartments are. It also discusses the “value-add opportunity” that comes from “renovating and upgrading dated apartment interior and common areas, creating an opportunity to push rents. The value-add opportunities are highly sought after because they produce outsized investment returns,” the website reads.
Smith said renters with serious complaints about their housing — such as problems with plumbing, electrical and heat — can file a “notice of deficient condition” that will require landlords to fix the problem. If the landlords don’t comply, the renter can pay for the repairs themselves and deduct it from future rent, or they can break the lease with no penalty and move out.
Arrieta, who fled his apartment because of the brown rain dripping from his bathroom ceiling, said he did file a deficient conditions notice. But he is still representing his own interests against the Cullimore firm which is suing him for breaking the lease. Court data shows from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 1 2021, the firm had filed 114 debt collection suits against former Downtown West residents.
Utah law also requires landlords to refund security deposits or notify renters of why not. If landlords flout the law, though, it’s up to the renter to navigate the legal system and file a court action to get their deposit back.
Arrieta said Solara kept his deposit and only notified him months later that it was used to cover the cost to clean the carpets — a claim he disputes.
“Most people just end up paying it because they’re scared of court or don’t know their rights,” Arrieta said. “The laws in Utah are only made to protect landlords and their wallets.”
The funding states received for rental assistance also included money that could be used to provide more services to benefit renters, such as counseling and legal support. Utah’s Department of Workforce Services has interpreted U.S. Treasury guidance to mean the state can use this additional funding to pay landlords’ legal bills for filing evictions. Salt Lake County, by contrast, has used its similar funding to pay eviction defense attorneys through People’s Legal Aid.
Danielle Stevens, the executive director of People’s Legal Aid, said its staff is “maxed out” with eviction defense even with the federal funding. She hopes more funding could go to outreach and education to help people know their rights.
“Education and awareness is crucial for us in the next year,” she said.
At the Bottom
While the 400-plus unit Downtown West complex has provided assistance to many of its residents, others are being evicted.
Diane Gallegos has been in an apartment in the complex for a year. As management announced rent increases for everyone else in November, Gallegos was given an eviction notice for nonpayment. She was confused since her rent is paid by housing assistance. A couple of weeks later, the Cullimore firm amended the complaint to say she was being evicted as a nuisance because she had a sex offender in the apartment that had caused the unit to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry.
However, the state registry shows no offender at the address or in the complex. Gallegos is baffled and has been told by the landlord she has to get the apartment taken off the registry list.
“How do I do that if I don’t know what the hell is going on or how it got there?” Gallegos said.
As bad as it is, it’s her home — and for her, it’s been bad.
She said she not only deals with roaches but said snakes that have come out of her bathroom sink and dishwasher. She said people who are homeless camp in her stairwell and ask her where to get meth on the complex grounds, adding that a drunken stranger fell through the window into her teenage daughter’s bedroom during her first week in the basement unit.
Still, before Downtown West she waited a year for housing assistance to get her a place of her own. Now she faces eviction from her imperfect home.
“I have three kids, I’m on housing. It’s not like I have money to get up and go somewhere else,” Gallegos said.
If you are experiencing eviction please consider visiting evictedinutah.com; the site can explain your rights and refer you to local legal and advocacy groups that can help your situation and help you find further resources.
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