Public comment is open now through July 21 on a new housing regulation being proposed by the Southeast Utah Health Department. According to SEUHD Environmental Health Director Orion Rogers, the new regulation isn’t a major change from the previous regulation.
“It’s more a clarification of roles and responsibilities of landlords to help provide better resources for tenants’ rights,” Rogers explained.
For example, environmental health staff have dealt with landlords turning off water, sewer, and/or electricity during evictions or other lease disputes, leading to improper waste disposal and unsanitary living conditions. The new regulation includes a provision prohibiting landlords from shutting off utilities to force an eviction (though utilities may still be turned off due to non-payment). Tenants have a responsibility to report early any observed problems, like water leaks.
SEUHD relied on the state’s general sanitation rules until a few years ago, when the department adopted its existing housing regulation. Rogers and SEUHD Director Bradon Bradford worked on the regulation together, referencing regulations from other health districts as a guide. Rogers said it’s difficult to write code that fits well for all three counties within SEUHD’s jurisdiction. Emery, Carbon, and Grand counties, which are all within the SEUHD district, have different demographics, poverty rates, and challenges.
In a June 15 memo accompanying the new regulation, health department staff described outside factors that affect housing, complex complaints and substandard conditions found upon inspection.
“In a jurisdiction with 12.5% of people living in poverty (compared to 8.9% in Utah), safe and sanitary housing is a critical tool to ensure and promote wellness within our population,” the memo says. The memo also lists other factors affecting the SEUHD jurisdiction: higher-than-average rates of hepatitis C, opioid abuse, and mental illness.
The memo includes photos of substandard conditions observed by health department staff within Grand, Carbon, and Emery counties, including water damage to roofs and walls, improper plumbing, unsafe electrical wiring, sewer leaks and backups, trash build-up and animal waste.
Rogers said the purpose of the housing regulation is to help people stay healthy and safe and find resources to address problems like these in dwellings.
“One key factor in helping with mental health and other issues is basic, clean housing. If you don’t have that, it’s going to stem into further issues,” said Rogers. If problems are found during home inspections, health department officials will make recommendations for repairs and help connect homeowners to experts and help.
“We try to find resources to help people. Our last resort for us is to close a home to occupancy unless there are extreme life safety issues,” Rogers said. “We’re not in the business of making people homeless.”
Complaints about housing sanitation and safety usually come from renters or landlords, Rogers said; inspectors don’t often assess homes in which the homeowner resides.
“We can’t regulate people of sound mind that are property owners,” Rogers said, unless they are causing an issue that affects neighbors or the community—hosting vermin or pests, for example—or unless there are children or vulnerable adults living in the home. In those cases, or in cases where problems are severe enough to cause life safety concerns, health department officials will help residents find alternative housing while the problems are addressed and, if relevant, building or fire department inspectors can take a look.
Sometimes, however, homeowners residing in their own houses ask for home inspections from the health department for advice on things like mold and water damage.
Rogers emphasized that health inspectors go through extensive training and testing in a variety of fields to be able to serve in the health department. They have the background to make assessments and recommendations on home safety and sanitation.
“It’s our job to know what we’re talking about when we get there,” he said.
So far, Rogers said, there have been few comments on the new regulation. To read the new rule and submit a comment, visit seuhealth.com.