Housing crisis burdens U students

Mike Wereschagin

Getting that first apartment is a memorable time in many college students’ lives. It is a step away from shelter, a step toward independence.
Without the knowledge of housing rights guiding them, however, many University students blindly step off a financial cliff, according to a Minnesota Public Interest Research Group study released Wednesday.
MPIRG consumer advocate Russell Langley, who wrote the report, said a lack of tenant-rights awareness combined with the Twin Cities housing shortage have dragged many University students into a housing crisis.
“Students are entering a tight housing market,” Langley said. “Immediately, that makes them vulnerable. And without knowledge of their rights as tenants, they have almost no protection at all.”
According to the report, 58 percent of students do not know that a security deposit cannot lawfully be used for normal wear and tear on an apartment. Sixty-two percent are unaware that a deposit must be returned within 21 days after the end of a tenancy. And 80 percent do not know that a landlord must pay interest on a security deposit.
The high percentage of students’ income that goes to rent is the most disturbing part of the report, Langley said.
According to Federal Bureau of Housing and Urban Development data, anyone paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent is not living in affordable housing.
About 70 percent of students in the study said they paid more than 30 percent. More than 40 percent of respondents spend 40 percent or more of their monthly income on rent.
“One out of every five students we talked to is paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent,” Langley said. “Add to that utilities, phone and groceries, and you have a serious problem.”
Langley said since students spend so much on rent, the reliance on student loans to cover tuition and rent mushrooms.
It then becomes a societal issue, he said. When a student graduates, they have to worry about paying back a large debt before they can start their lives.
“Instead of buying a car or a washer and dryer, they have to pay back (their lender),” Langley said.
The situation also puts additional strain on working-class and disadvantaged families, he added.
“This is turning college into an accessibility issue,” Langley said. “It is not so much whether you qualify, but whether or not you have enough money.”
The study also showed an overwhelming number of respondents — 94 percent — believed the state Legislature should take action on affordable housing.
Langley said the economy is ripe for addressing the housing problem.
“There is no guarantee this (boom) is going to last,” he said. “Now is the time to take advantage of this.”
He also said colleges and universities have a responsibility to contribute more to affordable student housing.
“Administrators and regents need to become advocates,” Langley said.
The University provides an off-campus housing listing service and bus schedules, said Sue Pilarski, a University housing spokeswoman. They also provide a copy of the state attorney general’s landlord-tenant handbook, she added.
“There are about 5,000 dorm rooms on this campus and about 50,000 students,” Langley said. “One of a public university’s first responsibilities should be to provide affordable housing for low-income students.
“With the job market advancing like it is, college isn’t just about upper-middle class parents sending the kids off for a four-year joy ride; real people need it too.”
Langley also suggested educators should teach housing law classes to high-school seniors and incoming college freshman so they would know their rights when they enter the housing market.
The key to ending the housing crisis is getting the federal government to re-involve themselves in the fight for affordable housing, Langley said.
“The city and state have to convince the feds to get back in the game,” he said. “Unless there is federal support, we won’t see comprehensive advancement in this field.”

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.