Renters’ rights your landlords never told you

I present to you, fellow students of the University of Minnesota, your personal bible for the next years of your collegiate career. This text will also serve you beyond your time in academia until you reach the fated day when you become a homeowner. I bestow on you The Testament of Renter’s Rights.

Having lived off campus for the last three years, I can reassure you that your worst nightmares of blood-sucking landlords and leaking hellholes are mere realities. Yes, unless you snuck your way into one of those newer apartment buildings, have resigned yourself to eating Aramark food for four years or struggle through that two-hour commute to the ‘burbs, you live in the landlords’ paradise of Dinkytown and Stadium Village.

Using my economic knowledge — I should note that I barely passed microecon — I believe the theory of supply and demand comes into play. There is a helluva demand and very limited supply. This creates a situation in which students are forced to compromise their rights as tenants and basically sign the first lease that doesn’t require borrowing from the credit card monthly. The lease is often read while the prospective tenant is signing. Hey, if you wait to read the fine print, someone might snatch the hot commodity of an apartment you’ve snagged, right?

Possibly. But slow down and look at the long-term ramifications. The lease contains the necessary information that will define your living situation. According to the handbook, Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities from the Office of Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, all terms of any rental agreement must be stated in the lease. This lease is legally binding and should state several key points. The lease should say who will pay the utility bills and list any unusual clauses, and a tenant must receive a copy .

At this point, I should insert my personal example so you can learn from my idiotic mistake. I did not read my lease closely because I was in a hurry, and I assumed it would be a traditional lease similar to the past three leases that I’ve signed. It was not. It had a special clause stating that the tenants must pay all repairs under $500. While a tenant has the right to demand that the unit be kept in reasonable repair, I basically agreed to be the financial backing for all repairs.

The handbook recommends that all transactions or agreements between you and your landlord be put in writing and signed by both parties. Your landlord might verbally promise to replace your leaky refrigerator or fix your temperamental stove, but a written agreement is the proof. You also should copy all documents that indicate a break-in-the-lease agreement — for example, a receipt for the refrigerator repairman that you had to call.

The landlord is responsible for keeping the unit in reasonable repair and fit to live in. This phrase “fit to live in” leaves much to the imagination. The University’s Student Legal Services says that the majority of their tenant’s rights cases debate this phrase. As ambiguous as this phrase is, however, it is a right that can NOT be waived. The landlord and tenant can agree that the tenant will do certain repairs, but the agreement should be written and the tenant should receive some type of recompense, e.g. rent reduction or payment).

An aspect of “fit to live” that is regulated is pest and rodent control. According to the City of Minneapolis’ ordinances, a landlord must provide pest and rodent control should a problem exist. Having lived in an apartment where we were afraid to put our shoes on for fear that they were the nesting place for our smaller roommates, knowledge of this ordinance might have been useful.

Also, a tenant has the right to privacy. Landlords may enter the unit, but they should give advance notice to the tenants. Technically, if a landlord violates this law, the tenant can take the landlord to court to break the lease, recover the damage deposit and receive a civil penalty of up to $100 per violation. However, this needs to be well documented with dates and times.

What are the courses of action if your lease is violated in one of the above situations? You can file a complaint with your local housing inspector and ask that the unit be inspected. If your landlord has not made repairs, you can place your rent in escrow with the court, and the court will order the landlord to make the repairs. If you choose to file a complaint or place your rent in escrow, your landlord cannot strike back by evicting you.

Minneapolis has numerous resources for renters: The City of Minneapolis Housing Services, 673-3003; City of Minneapolis Inspection Division, 673-5858; HUD, 370-3000; and the Minnesota Tenants Union, 871-7485, can assist you with renter’s rights issues. Also, the University’s Student Legal Services, 624-1001, handle 300 to 400 landlord-tenant disputes each year. The initial appointment is free for full-time students.

Even if your tenancy goes without a glitch, don’t forget the importance of your security deposit. Did you know that your landlord must give you 3 percent interest on your deposit? The landlord must also return your security deposit within 21 days after the end of your lease. If all of the deposit is not returned, your landlord must detail the reasons in a written list. The list should detail what is required in order to receive your full security deposit. Reasonable wear and tear is not a legal excuse for not returning a security deposit.

Finally, even though your living quarters may seem comfortable and secure, they very well could be illegal. The following are City of Minneapolis code violations:

— The owner doesn’t have a rental or lodging license posted.

— Your bedroom ceiling is less than seven feet high

— There isn’t a smoke detector within 15 feet of your bedroom. Just for clarification, the smoke detector must be working — it doesn’t count as a smoke detector if you’re using the broken parts of it as an ash tray. But maybe that just happened in my apartment.

— You have three or more unrelated roommates living in one unit

— You live in a room less than seven feet across.

— You live in a third floor attic that does not have two stairways leading to the ground

So remember, yes, the renter’s market is tight with less than 1 percent vacancy, but don’t abandon your rights as a renter. By living in a substandard unit and not protesting, students are giving landlords the freedom to compromise their rights.

Amanda Mark’s column appears alternate Fridays. She welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]