Off-campus housing fraught with pitfalls for unwary students

The majority of incoming University freshmen seek a life in the residence halls filled with meeting new people and getting the ideal first-year experience. By the next year, however, only 20 percent of sophomores will choose to live in the dorms, said Mannix Clark, assistant department director for Housing and Residential Life.

The rest will seek off-campus housing, and many will choose to rent, he said.

Many students find renting full of responsibilities and obligations not felt in residence halls. A majority of these students go into the experience with no idea of what’s in store, said Spencer Blaw, executive director of the Minnesota Tenant’s Union. And some students said they have been cheated because they didn’t know their renter’s rights.

Both renters and landlords have rights and responsibilities each should know, Blaw said. It starts with the lease.

“Students need to be clear on exactly what their rental agreement is,” he said. “It’s important to read carefully.”

Renters can read their rental rights by logging on to Minnesota attorney general’s Web site at

Nell Benson lived in Pioneer Hall her first semester at the University and then moved into a Dinkytown house with friends for her second semester. One morning near the end of the school year, she said she and her roommates woke up to the strong smell of gas.

“When Minnegasco came to the house they found a total of six gas leaks in our stove and in our basement,” Benson said. “(Minnegasco) told us it was dangerous to have the gas on and that we should stay somewhere else until we could get the problem fixed.”

The problem wasn’t fixed by their landlord, and the roommates moved in with Benson’s parents until it was safe to return.

“It turned into a month of the problem not being fixed,” she said. “I contacted an attorney and he said to withhold rent and pay it to the housing court.”

By paying to the court they would have record of paying their rent, but it would not go to the landlord until the repairs were made.

“(Our landlord) took us to court because he hadn’t received rent,” Benson said. “But the judge ruled in our favor.”

It’s impossible to know exactly what situation a person is getting into when moving to a rental unit, but knowledge is key when entering into a contract with a landlord, Blaw said.

Bill Dane, staff attorney with the University Student Legal Services, said he agrees.

“It’s important for students to know that when they are asked to sign a lease, they are entering into a business relationship,” Dane said. “The contract you sign makes you jointly and severally liable for rent for the entire year.”

Before signing a rental agreement, Blaw said there are certain actions to take. These actions include: talking to neighbors to ask about any problems with the landlord and checking out the property at different times of day and night to ensure the area is safe and comfortable.

To protect assets and well-being, a renter must understand every detail of the rental agreement and, when touring the facility, only look at the apartment into which the renter would move.

“Renters should get a receipt for any money given to the landlord, as well as put into writing any complaints and keep all copies,” Blaw said.

Katy Kavanaugh, a leasing agent for Empire Management, said the agency doesn’t have many tenants who refuse to comply with rental rules. She said certain characteristics make some renters more desirable than others.

“An ideal renter needs to pay rent on time, keep the place clean and respect the area that they live in,” she said.

She said there are also expectations renters should have for the landlord. If something in the apartment goes wrong, a renter can expect it will be repaired in a reasonable amount of time – sooner for emergencies. General upkeep of the property is also the responsibility of the owner or manager of the property, Kavanaugh said.

Even though some University students have had problems with rental situations, she said Minnesota residents are luckier than those from other states in regard to renter’s rights.

Benson, who is in her fourth year at the University and is a retail merchandising major, no longer lives on campus and said she had a good landlord in south Minneapolis.

“The difference is being off campus,” she said. “(Landlords) have too much leverage on campus because there’s such high demand for housing.”

Benson said she learned a lot from renting on campus.

“There’s no way to know ahead of time what you’re getting into with your landlord,” she said. “The best thing to know is that you have rights as a tenant and being a student, you have access to free legal advice.”


Maggie Hessel-Mial welcomes comments at [email protected]