A recent housing data snapshot conveyed some rather difficult news to the East Carbon City Council at last week's meeting. The information, which EC officials requested, outlines an uphill climb as the small community works to address several property-related problems.
The issue was brought before the council by Jay Mashburn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who explained that available funds allowed the Rural Community Assistance Corporation to provide research on any given topic for select cities.
"When we asked the city what we could do and which issue would help for us to look into, property problems was the number one result," explained Mashburn. "Carol Cohen from Park City is a housing expert and we brought her in to take a look at your city."
Cohen outlined several trends within East Carbon concerning property. She also discussed several manners in which the problems could be addressed.
According to the 2010 Census, the East Carbon population has dropped from 1,393 in 2000. The population now sits at 1,301. While such a small drop might seem insignificant, it amounts to one in every 15 residents leaving the area. Further economic and demographic analysis also shows that the East Carbon median household value decreased from $50,965 to $49,700 over the same time period.
Cohen's snap shot detailed the following points as "must address" issues for East Carbon's leaders.
As much as 35 percent of the housing units in southeast Utah contain some level of lead-based paint.
Within Carbon County 54 percent of median income renters are unable to afford fair market for a two bedroom unit.
Approximately 71 percent of total houses built in East Carbon were constructed between 1940-1949.
East Carbon's population numbers demonstrate that nearly 40 percent of all residents are over 65 years in age and 15 percent of those individuals rent.
These statics illustrate alarming trends in several areas, according to Cohen. A significant percentage of the housing stock is old and in need of rehab, she said. The city has many vacant units as well and there is a strong need for more affordable units. However, rather than the age of homes, the most troubling issue of all seems to be the age of East Carbon's population.
"Over a third of the town is of retirement age," commented Cohen while addressing the council. "That provides some special challenges for you as city leaders. You have a one to one-and-a-half ratio and that raises the red flag concerning property."
Cohen reported that 172 of East Carbon 722 total homes were currently vacant, a number council member Maggio disagreed with.
"I don't think that is a true number," he said. "I take exception to there being 172 empty homes. I don't think that is right."
Cohen responded that the numbers were pulled directly from the census and that those figures could be challenged at any time. However, the property expert recommended that the city expend its energy via a needs assessment before doing anything else.
According to Cohen, when property is more than 20 years old, the assistance corporation begins to look at rehab programs. The city also must address the area's aging population through its own study.
"You need to drive through the area yourselves and look at your needs. You need more affordable units and more rental units," she explained. "As for your aging population, their needs are going to be more and more an issue moving forward."
When asked to look at East Carbon's population, Cohen began researching landlord/tenant law in Utah. She didn't find much.
"As for landlord/tenant law, there is nothing to look at in Utah and this issue is also a problem on a national level," she said. "Especially when one is looking for rural landlord/tenant law."
According to the planner, a Wyoming study on the lack of rural ordinances showed that there is an assumption that "rural folks" can fix things. Given that assumption, they don't have to have the best rental units. This is obviously false, she said.
Cohen outlined the Good Landlord Program, which exists through most of the state but only in urban areas thus far.
"The program was developed by the Utah Apartment Association to increase the quality of life for renters," she said. The goal is to decrease crime, prevent illegal activities and make landlords accountable."
She reported that the program asks that all rental properties are registered with a business licenses and that landlord attend training to learn of renters rights as well as their rights as landlords. Cohen said that the program thus far was for much larger areas but that East Carbon officials could change the program as needed.
The model Cohen recommended included the following fixes. After conducting a needs assessment, it was recommended that East Carbon identify which partners will be assisting them. She asked that officials create an ordinance that requires property registration with a fee for rental units. This ordinance would include a good landlord program as well as an analysis of business license fees.
Cohen also strongly recommended a marketing campaign to help roll-out a homeowner and rental rehab program and hold a town meeting to build local support.
Following her presentation, the council relayed some of the specific issues they have had with local landlords.
"We some landlords with multiple units, many of which I wouldn't let my dog live. They are never really cleaned or maintained, they are simply re-rented. However when we try to address this, we are picking on the landlords. Where do we go from there," Maggio asked? "This program you are describing sounds great but I don't see these owners buying in. These absentee landlords, who don't live here and don't care about the place, if they don't put their arms around this then what is our alternative?"
Maggio continued to explain that many residents in attendance had spent a great deal of money in their own property and were not looking to recoup that sum. According to Maggio, these residents are "lifers" and deserve better than to live next to a property they can smell.
Cohen replied that these are problems that many rural areas face, East Carbon may be worse, she said, but the city's problems are in no way unique.
"This is not something you can fix overnight and you are going to have to commit to a campaign aimed at changing the face of your community," she concluded. "That doesn't have to be complex, it can be very simple but you need a needs assessment. I recommend you do that first and then seriously look at an ordinance that included registration for rentals and then you have something legal to work with."
Moving forward, the city committed to contacting the Association of Local Governments for help with the ordinance as well as a promise to conduct their own needs assessment for the local population.