‘I don’t know what to do’: As shocked residents of an apartment complex in Salt Lake City are forced to evacuate, some tenants wonder where they’ll sleep Thursday night

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) “I can’t be approved for my next apartment by the time I need to be out,” said Robert Gardner, right. On Monday, Gardner and his wife and three children — along with tenants in up to 42 other units at Georgia Apartments in Salt Lake City — were given three days to move out. City officials issued a “red tag” order to the building’s landlord after multiple requests to bring the building up to code went unheeded.

At 9 a.m. Monday, Amber and Robert Gardner received a knock on their door and a red notice from the Salt Lake City fire marshal: They had 72 hours to move themselves, their three daughters and four cats out of the apartment at 203 East 2100 South where the family has lived since 2017.

The Gardners are in one of up to 42 units affected by the “red tag” order, which was issued after multiple unheeded requests to the landlord to bring the building up to code, Salt Lake City officials said Monday. And like other tenants in the building, the family is now uncertain of where they’ll sleep Thursday night.

“We figure OK, the best thing we can do is take the night, let it soak in,” Amber Gardner told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday afternoon as she looked helplessly around her living room. “We’ve got to track down somewhere where we can get some boxes and just start packing. Taking stuff off the walls, taking the blankets, the tapestries and whatnot, getting the glass stuff off the wall, wrapping it up, getting it marked fragile.”

She’s called two Smith’s grocery stores and a Payless shoe store already, looking for boxes. Payless doesn’t have any and won’t get another shipment until Thursday — and by that time, the Gardners will already need to be gone.

Salt Lake City officials said they have been working with the landlord at Georgia Apartments, whom county documents identified as Carol Lunt, since 2017. Inspections of the property, including one as recent as Monday morning, found (among other problems) the fire escapes had not been certified every five years, exits were blocked or restricted by debris, the heating system was nonfunctional and smoke detectors and electrical wiring were not up to code, according to the city.

Lunt could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Of biggest concern to the fire marshal was the potential for cold winter weather to freeze the building’s sprinkler pipes, since the outside doors and some windows have been busted out, said Ryan Mellor, a spokesman with the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

The sprinklers "will no longer offer protection if something should happen catastrophic in the middle of the night and that’s our worst-case scenario,” he said. “And that’s actually the overriding concern above all else is to make sure that those people that are in that building can get out of that building in case of a fire. And right now it is the belief of the fire marshal’s office that this is not the case.”

The “red tag” order will remain in effect until the fire marshal determines conditions have improved and that the building is safe to occupy in accordance with state law, Mellor said.

The Gardners told The Tribune they were aware their landlord was working with Salt Lake City officials but say they were completely taken aback when they found out Monday that they would need to evacuate their building.

“We didn’t know nothing,” Robert Gardner said. “Seventy two hours I think is a joke. I can’t pass a bunch of these background checks [for other apartments] in 72 hours. So even if I fill out the applications, I won’t be approved in 72 hours. So now what? I can’t even be approved for my next apartment by the time I have to get out.”

In a county where housing just keeps getting more expensive, the rents at Georgia Apartments ranged from about $740 to $900 a month, estimated Tony Milner, who works with the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Department. Rent in Salt Lake County jumped from an average of $720 a month in 2010 to $1,072 last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s midyear 2018 Apartment Market Report.

The Gardners rely solely on Robert’s wages as a roofer while Amber cares for their daughters, who are all under the age of 10, and they were on the lower end of that rent rate. They paid just $600 a month — and now they worry they won’t be able to find anything else that they can afford.

“We can’t take our cats to the Road Home,” Amber Gardner said as she considered shelter options. “I don’t know what to do.”

While evacuations usually take place immediately, the Salt Lake City Fire Department has issued 72 hours of “fire watch” service, which will consist of 24-hour safety inspections of the building while it’s being evacuated. The city has also set up a Housing Outreach Center at the Salt Lake County Government complex, where multiple agencies are available to assist tenants in their housing search.

“We don’t want to see these families become homeless,” Milner said.

As of Monday afternoon, 10 households had already taken advantage of the services, Milner noted. Those include everything from mediation with the landlord to help people get their deposits back to helping residents understand their rights.

“This is going to be a burden for these tenants,” Milner said. “But again, this is something not of their doing but is due to the landlord, so that’s why we’re here to help them navigate all the different options.”

Unrelated to the “red tag,” the Salt Lake City attorney’s office has outlined multiple enforcement actions related to Georgia Apartments, including citations for noncompliance with housing and zoning codes that resulted in $4,200 in outstanding fees. The owner was also suspended from the city’s “Good Landlord Program” and is delinquent in fees totaling $13,524 with an additional $14,514 due to the city on Feb. 28.

The Salt Lake City Police Department recorded 647 calls for service to the Georgia Apartments, which was up from 213 the previous year. The calls were for drug problems, fights, domestic disturbances, trespassing and a number of other criminal activities.

Anyone interested in helping tenants through rent and deposit assistance can contact Milner at 801-792-7395.