Many renters unaware of their rights as tenants

Tess Langfus

When University senior Mike Komperud and his friends looked for off-campus housing close to campus two years ago, they took the first thing they could find before leaving for summer vacation.
Perhaps a bit naãve from living solely in dorms, the five friends signed a lease within a couple of weeks for the $1,600-per-month house he now describes as “a cesspool.”
Unattached storm windows leaned against their frames. Several windows were broken and never replaced.
Inside, a half-dozen holes gaped in the walls, one of them the size of a softball. Because the walls and floors were slanted, the doors did not close properly and things slid off dressers.
Komperud’s bedroom was so small he had difficulty maneuvering around his twin bed and love seat. The ceiling in his closet was falling down, exposing bathroom pipes from upstairs.
The non-functioning lower-level bathroom was boarded up.
When the housemates called the landlord to fix the property, he was slow and sometimes unresponsive. Oftentimes he would refuse to make repairs until the requests were made in writing.
“We kind of threatened him that we’d have somebody check it out if he didn’t fix some stuff,” Komperud said.
The landlord gave the housemates a credit at the hardware store for them to fix some of the holes in the wall.
Then he evicted them.

Party rules
In the Marcy-Holmes area where Komperud lived, the residence organization cooperates with the Minneapolis police department to break up any noisy parties in the area, said Melissa Bean, staff person at the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.
After more than three violations for noisy parties, a landlord’s license could be revoked.
Komperud said though the police had come to the house to break up parties, he does not recall enough incidents to warrant eviction.
“The neighborhood counselor was pressuring the police department, who was in turn pressuring the landlord,” he said. “And so to save himself, he told us we had to get out.”
Komperud’s landlord did not return phone calls for an interview.

Tenants’ rights
“I think the guy was definitely shady,” Komperud said, “and I think all those houses are overpriced with how well they are managed, which is not very.”
Yet, neither he nor any of his house mates pursued legal action.
“I didn’t really completely understand my rights,” he said.
It is a common problem among students, said Barb Boysen, a Student Legal Services legal assistant.
Boysen recommends students concerned or frustrated about their business relationship with their landlords come into their office for legal assistance. Any student who pays the student services fee is eligible for assistance.
In fact, Boysen said, students should come into the office even before a situation turns bad. The legal department often looks over lease agreements before students sign the contract.
Sometimes landlords write into their lease uncommon provisions that once signed are considered valid.
Boysen recalled a lease that stated the rent would increase by $100 a month with each party citation.
Once a lease is signed, tenants’ rights are protected through the legal system.
The most typical types of problems the legal department sees are landlords’ inattentiveness to repair requests and failure to return rent deposits.
Another problem is invasion of tenants’ privacy rights. Quite often, landlords enter students’ residences without the required permission.
“As a tenant, you’re not a guest of the landlord,” she said. “This is an actual legal relationship that gives you the right to call this your home.”
But, Boysen said, too many students are fearful to bring their cases to a legal service. They are concerned a confrontation with their landlord will result in a rent hike or eviction.
However, courts protect tenants faced with a rent increase or an eviction within a 90-day period after a complaint is made.

Legal remedies
As soon as a student becomes a tenant, he or she should consider it a business transaction, Boysen said. All correspondence should be followed up in writing, and all documents should be copied and retained, even before a relationship turns sour.
“One of the best favors tenants can do for themselves is to keep a record of everything that goes on in that relationship,” Boysen said.
Yet, tenants should be leery of landlords who require everything in writing before they will respond to repair requests. This may be a stalling tactic, Boysen said.
“The best landlords are responsive to any contact,” she added.
If landlords refuse or ignore repair requests, tenants may contact their city inspections department. Caseworkers inspect the property for code violations and substandard conditions and may order the landlord to comply with the requests.
Continual refusal can result in additional licensing sanctions or revocation of the landlord’s license.
But Boysen urges tenants not to withhold their rent payments as a monetary threat to landlords when they have complaints. Landlords can successfully bring action against the tenants for nonpayment of rent.
Instead, tenants can deposit their rent in an escrow account with the court until the dispute is solved either within or outside the court system.
Landlords bringing action against tenants for damages have the burden of proof, according to state law.
A good practice for tenants may be to document the condition of the property either in writing or with pictures or videotape. However, Boysen said, the precaution may backfire. If an area was initially overlooked, the landlord may claim the tenant was responsible.

Rock and a hard place
With the low vacancy rates in the University area and the lack of student housing on campus, Boysen said landlords have the upper hand with students.
Tenants often opt to overlook excessive rent prices, over-occupancy problems and neglected living conditions in order to find a place to live close to the University.
“There’s no question that the current market has a large impact on abuses by landlords, how many tenants are having problems and whether those tenants are willing to pursue remedies,” Boysen said.
She said lack of affordable, quality housing is the biggest problem facing students today. There is no cap on the amount of rent a landlord can request.
And the University, albeit unknowingly, may have contributed to the landlords’ control over the students, Boysen said, since “the University was not paying attention to the housing issues.”
For information on tenants rights, the Legal Services department has a housing resource packet available for all students.

— Staff reporter Patrick Hayes contributed to this report.