Fire department to inspect student housing

Fire Chief Rocco Forte said student rentals will be targeted in the upcoming inspection sweeps announced Monday.

“First, we need to just get all the student homes up to a minimum standard,” Forte said. “That’s our priority right now.”

Forte said inspected units will be determined by Friday, but he said identifying student-occupied rentals will be a challenge.

Greg Simbeck, neighborhood coordinator at the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said he is looking forward to student-housing inspections.

“We’ve had a number of complaints Ö in the Como area,” Simbeck said. “Anything that will increase the safety of the tenants is welcomed.”

Forte said all units will eventually be inspected.

Simbeck said student housing is a particular concern in the Como area. He said he has received complaints on over-occupancy, parties and poorly parked vehicles.

“We want students to understand that we don’t want them displaced from their housing,” Simbeck said. “These inspections will just make the students’ condition safer and will increase the improvement on their property.”

University junior Alisa Walters said she initially thought inspections were a good idea, but she now thinks they will make housing more expensive.

“Landlords will have to raise the rent, and the cheapest rent around here is like $350 a month,” Walters said. “I can’t afford to pay $700 for a decent place to live.”

Walters shares a duplex in Dinkytown and said she signed the lease with five other tenants for six bedrooms – one of which is unheated.

On Monday, Walters and her roommates were notified that the unheated room cannot be used as a bedroom.

“Our landlord claimed the unheated room was never intended to be a bedroom,” Walters said.

Walters and her roommates now have to either pick two people to share a room, terminate their lease or pay half the $1,000 cost of installing electrical heating.

“We don’t want to move out, and we don’t have enough room for two people to share,” Walters said. “It’s a stretch as it is.”

She said after Monday she changed her mind about the inspections.

“This is going to hurt students more than it’s going to help,” she said.

Forte said inspectors will check smoke detectors, early alarm systems and exit accessibility, but initial inspections will take 10 to 15 minutes per unit – not the formal, licensed inspection the fire department usually conducts.

“We’ll be checking for what is absolutely required to make the buildings safe,” Forte said.

There are 105 firefighters available each day, Forte said, in addition to regulatory services inspectors.

He said inspectors will work eight-hour rotations until inspections are completed.

Simbeck said inspections will work – if they are consistent.

“There has to be follow-up with the landlords if they find violations, or this will be pointless,” Simbeck said.

Forte said cost is not a concern and inspectors will not require overtime.

“We have firefighters available for all 24 hours of the day,” Forte said. “It’s just a matter of priorities.”