Navigating Off-Campus Living: A Guide
by Rose Conry (guest author) | Northwestern University
Brendan Rogers and his roommates moved into a three-bedroom off-campus house last August. A pack of rodents joined the Ohio State University juniors in their Columbus home in January and stuck around for four months.
Rats snuck into their basement and boiler room through an opening in the wooden boards of the porch. They created a nest, and Rogers, 21, estimates he ended up living with 30 to 40 rats this past winter. Rogers and his roommates, Mike Freeh and Caleb Lancaster, repeatedly notified the company managing the property of the rodent infestation.
“We would call and report it. They would say they would get back to us, but it was months before they responded,” Rogers said.
The realty company contracted an exterminator to address the rodent problem in April, but only after the students’ parents began to complain and threaten legal action.
When he moved into his off-campus house, Rogers found a window detached from its frame in his second-floor bedroom, allowing squirrels to scurry in and out of the house. In October, over a month after Rogers moved into the house, the company managing the property hired a handyman to fix the broken window. Whether an apartment or a house, every property carries the potential to invite unwanted pests or boast dysfunctional features, and this past year, Rogers found his building’s management company unresponsive when these problems occurred.
“They were really unprofessional about it, and didn’t respect our opinions,” Rogers said.
Rogers, Freeh and Lancaster will let their lease expire and move into a larger property this fall. After putting up with one year of the realty company’s disregard for their concerns, they decided to sign a lease for a family-owned property. The students have heard of the family’s reputation for good management and regular repairs of their units and hope this will help them avoid a repeat of the four-month rodent infestation.
Two more friends will live with them in this house. By splitting the monthly rent between the five of them, the students will pay $1,750 per month for the entire unit, or $350 per month individually, comparable to what Rogers, Freeh and Lancaster each pay in their current unit. Now they split a monthly rent of $1,150 and end up each paying about $383 per month plus utilities.
Rogers never went forward with the legal threats, but a team of lawyers and law students at the Student Legal Services at Ohio State University advises and represents students in landlord-tenant disputes more often than any other type of case it sees. Student Legal Services evaluated their caseload this spring and found that 50 percent of their services were landlord-tenant related, 40 percent dealt with criminal offenses and the remaining 10 percent addressed other civil issues.
“In a big city, it’s even that much more important for students to have legal resources. There’s so much more opportunity for a landlord to have poor housing in a big city, because it doesn’t get as much notice as it does in a smaller town,” said Paul Wilkins, an attorney with Student Legal Services at Ohio State University.
To use Student Legal Services, students must pay an annual $40 fee. The university automatically adds this fee to a student’s tuition statement, unless the student decides to opt out and forfeit the service for the entire year. For the 2011 to 2012 school year, 80 percent of students enrolled in the service, Wilkins said.
Northwestern University has taken steps to educate and protect students living off campus. Fewer than 9,000 undergraduates attend the university, and less than half, about 3,000 of them, live off campus. In January, Northwestern created the position of Director of Off-Campus Life and hired Tony Kirchmeier to fill the post and address the needs of off-campus students. The university manages a website with advice and resources aimed at helping students manage life off campus. It plans to release a series of short video vignettes exploring issues related to renting properties off campus.
“We’ve found for some of the information that if we try to put it on the website in print, it gets long, so it’s better in a video,” Kirchmeier said.
In Durham, North Carolina, Duke University plans to release a similar resource for its students looking to live off campus. A video addressing the additional rights and responsibilities of leasing a property nearby Duke will debut in the coming months. Duke requires its students to live on campus for at least three years, leaving a smaller population off campus. About 1,000 undergrads, or 17 percent of the total undergrad population, live off campus.
“Our approach is that students certainly have the right to live off campus after they fulfilled their three-year obligation on campus. We really want students to do that with their eyes wide open, recognizing the new responsibilities that they have as well as the new rights they have,” said Sue Wasiolek, Dean of Students at Duke University and co-author of the 2012 book Getting the Best out of College, Revised and Updated.
Students Off Campus
In colleges across the country, students elect to live off campus, but renting off-campus varies in popularity. At Ohio State University, 75 percent of the undergraduate student body lived off campus in 2012, amounting to more than 31,000 students of the 42,000 that study there. Only about 2,000 University of Chicago undergraduates, or 40 percent of them, live off campus, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Some students struggle through off-campus experiences, and often unresponsive landlords or management companies complicate the situation.
“The most frequent complaint students bring is the lack of response they get from their landlord, either related to a repair or maintenance issue. They’ve asked the landlord to do something and the landlord has not responded,” Wasiolek said.
Off-Campus Living 101
As part of the required survey class called the “First Year Experience,” Ohio State University freshmen learn about renting properties and landlord-tenant law from Student Legal Services and Neighborhood Services and Collaboration. This program targets freshmen in hopes of helping them avoid problems when they move off campus. Evanston landlord Lisa Pildes advocates Northwestern University to require students to take a class that addresses issues related to living off campus. Pildes owns seven properties in the neighborhoods surrounding Northwestern University.
“I’ve shown sophomores some units. They are just clueless, and there’s no one to help them. The school ought to do it,” Pildes said.
In 2011, Michael Schaffer founded checkyourlandlord.com, a site aimed at helping individuals avoid rental scams and find reputable properties. He lives outside of Denver, but offers his services nationally through the site. He says students often do not take the time to ask the right questions about a property and its landlord.
“Students tend to think they’re invincible,” Schaffer said.
Through its off-campus website, Northwestern provides a property checklist that it encourages students to download and look over before leasing a house or apartment. Student Legal Services at Ohio State University offers a lease review to interested students. Wilkins finds this measure that prepares students for the move off campus one of the most successful programs at his office.
University of Chicago junior Zoe Zhang, 21, moved from a residence hall into an apartment building the summer after her freshmen year. With little support from the university, Zhang and her roommates found themselves unprepared to face some of the pesky realities of apartment living in Hyde Park. Bed bugs and broken faucets led the students to terminate their year-long lease after just four months.
“On the surface, it looked good, but then a lot of the stuff we used on a daily basis was not functioning,” Zhang said.
Zhang filed many work-orders for the property: one for the clogged sink, another for the difficult door, and more for the rodents and insects that crept their way into the building. The company that managed her unit lagged behind in making the necessary repairs to the apartment and addressing the pest problems. The company typically assured the students they would fulfill their requests within 24 hours, but instead it often took two or three days to make the repairs.
“They would actually promise one thing, but do another,” Zhang said.
The company offered Zhang one unlikely benefit. The laundry machines for the unit worked, but the slots that accepted the quarters for several of them did not. Zhang enjoyed free laundry all summer long.
After four months in the property, Zhang and her roommates terminated their lease in September and moved into a three-bedroom unit in Twin Towers Apartments, a complex that consists of two 37-story buildings and carries a strong reputation among University of Chicago students. The three of them pay $2,100 per month for the apartment, or $700 each, a significant price increase from the first apartment, where five students split the monthly rent of $2,300, each paying $460.
Since moving into the unit in September 2010, Zhang has not experienced any major problems with the apartment. With the management office in the same building as her current apartment, Zhang has a short commute to make when problems do arise.
Negotiating the termination of lease proved difficult for the students. The rental company refused to take responsibility for any of the problems with the property, and forced the students to pay rent in full until November and tacked on two more months of rent in penalty fees.
The Positive Aspects of Off Campus
A lower cost of living off campus compared to the residence halls pushed Kathleen LaMagna, 22, to rent an apartment. Mice crept their way into the Boston apartment of LaMagna, a Boston Conservatory student. She finds the creatures disgusting but commends Hunneman Management Corporation, the real estate company managing the property, for its service throughout the year. Instead of faulting the management, LaMagna says she sees mice as typical household guests in Boston homes. With an office on the same street as her apartment, Hunneman addresses LaMagna’s complaints almost instantaneously.
“They’re very accessible. Nine times out of ten they’ll drop whatever they’re doing in the office, and walk with me down the street to my apartment and check everything out,” LaMagna said.
Importance of Communication
Pildes relies on a personal connection with her student renters to build a successful landlord-tenant relationship. She lives in the same neighborhood that holds her properties, and invites students into her home to sign their leases. She calls tenants’ parents to further establish herself as an involved landlord.
“I want their parents to know too that I’m not just some kind of faceless person. That this is my business, and I want their kids to have a good experience,” Pildes said.
The landlord-tenant relationship thrives if both parties communicate even when small problems arise. Schaffer encourages a regular email exchange and the tenant to mention even minor problems with the property.
“If the furnace is making some weird noises, there might be nothing wrong with it, but unless you’re a furnace expert, you don’t know. You should tell the landlord because it might be something that is fixed for $100 and if you wait, you going to have to spend $2,000 on a new furnace,” Schaffer said.
Student renters bring along certain risks. Their college habits often bring unwanted activity to the neighborhood in the middle of the night, or six buses flashing disco lights and blaring hymns of the 80′s, as one neighbor notes during a community forum between Northwestern students and Evanston residents.
Pildes says students often struggle to take care of the properties, and sometimes the communication falters, further complicating the issues. Pildes claims the students never reported a loose microwave handle until it broke, but the students say they notified her. Pildes ended up needing to buy a new microwave, instead of hiring someone to tighten the handle.
Rental Unit Licensing?
Recently, Northwestern students, Evanston residents and university representatives met in a university building to discuss issues affecting the students and their city neighbors. Between complaints of the city’s new safety lights shining just too brightly and applause for the proposed crackdown on high school students attending the day of concerts know as Dillo Day at Northwestern, Pildes updates the room on the progress of new Rental Unit Licensing Committee
This past winter, the City of Evanston formed a committee to evaluate whether the city needs to require landlords to obtain licenses for each rental unit in order to enforce its property standards. Last year, Evanston released a list of 52 properties that have unresolved building code or over-occupancy violation complaints. The neighborhoods immediately surrounding Northwestern University hold the vast majority of these problematic properties.
Through Ordinance 42-O-08, the city mandates owners to register their rental units annually. The current committee is discussing whether licensing will effectively prevent problem properties in Evanston. Under the current system of registration, the city inspects units after the landlord registers the property and leases it to tenants. With licensing, the city would collect a $26 annual fee per unit to carry out property inspections and license rental units that pass the inspection. The $26 fee would be an increase from the current registration fees. These fees vary depending on the size and type of the unit, but cost less than the proposed licensing fee.
“Their theory is that licensing rental units will give their department more teeth. I don’t think it will…there’s nothing that keeps them from enforcing the rules that are on the books already,” said Pildes, a member of the committee.