SALT LAKE CITY — In December and January, fire inspectors arrived at a Salt Lake City apartment complex to find a sprinkler system at risk of freezing, exits blocked by junk and missing smoke detectors.
This week, they ordered residents to move out, saying the fire and safety hazards were too dangerous. On Friday, prosecutors said the conditions were not just risky but also criminal.
They filed 15 misdemeanor charges against the owner of a condemned apartment complex. The allegations stem from code violations including missing or nonworking smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, extension cords in place of permanent wiring and inaccessible fire hose hookups at Georgia Apartments.
On Friday, many residents were still scrambling to go find a new place ahead of a Saturday move-out deadline imposed by the city. One of those still searching was 34-year-old Aaron Hirtler, who said the criminal allegations brought little consolation and he mostly feels numb.
"It doesn't really change or fix anything, really. I might feel differently later, but right now, in the middle of all this, it's like, ‘OK, couldn't something have been done earlier? Did it have to reach this point?’" Hirtler said he was planning to speak with the city's housing and redevelopment team over the weekend to identify more leads.
The condemned complex is a block removed from a busy intersection at 2100 South and State Street in Salt Lake City. Its owner, Carol Lunt, 61, could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. A day earlier, she declined to speak about the conditions but could be seen walking around the complex that has several broken and boarded-up windows.
Tenants on Monday were initially told they had three days to leave, but they were later granted more time. On Thursday, several in 31 occupied units at the two-story complex frantically packed up belongings. Many said disrepair, crime and squatters have long been problems there.
Inspectors with the Salt Lake City Fire Department have been meeting with Lunt in person, talking to her on the phone and via mail and fax since August 2017, the court documents state.
On Dec. 8 and Jan. 29, they identified several code violations "that created concern for life safety issues," according to probable cause affidavits. Each of the counts is an alleged violation of international fire code and related standards, a class B misdemeanor. A conviction carries a possible sentence of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
"Every individual and family has a right to live in a safe environment," Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a statement. "When people are put at risk by those responsible to ensure basic standards of safety, we have an obligation to hold them accountable." He could not immediately be reached by phone Friday.
A hearing on the allegations in Salt Lake City Justice Court has not yet been scheduled.
Safety hazards aside, city officials have also noted an increase in violent or criminal incidents. In 2018, Salt Lake police recorded nearly 650 incidents of drug problems, fights, domestic disturbances, trespassing and other issues — about a threefold increase from a year earlier, city officers said earlier in the week.
In Provo, a landlord and property manager are facing criminal charges after a tenant died in a house fire in June. Prosecutors say the building's owner, Kelly Ellis, knew the basement apartment had no smoke detectors and was a "death trap" but rented it out anyway. He and property manager Homer Workman are charged with manslaughter, a second-degree felony, in the death of 48-year-old Donna Clegg. Neither man has entered a plea. Both are due back in court in March.