Leases play a critical role in protecting students’ rights

Renting an apartment or house is part of college life. Signing a lease is a binding legal agreement, and the University Student Legal Service has seen students’ successes and failures in realizing their rights in this contract.

The University Student Legal Service works to protect and educate University students of their rights as tenants. The organization cites repair, financial and over-occupancy disputes as its main concerns.

Each of these problems begin with the lease.

“A big mistake first-time renters make is they don’t take the lease seriously,” Bill Dane, an attorney with the student legal service, said.

The organization urges tenants to check the lease for a number of issues, including the landlord’s repair policies, sub-leasing allowances and utility bills.

“You need to treat the lease as a business arrangement and do all your business in writing,” Dane said. “If it’s in writing, the landlord knows you are documenting it.”

Documentation is essential because it is a renter’s best defense in court. Upon moving in to a new property or leaving an old one, take pictures. This makes a record of the property’s conditions so the landlord cannot dishonestly keep the security deposit for supposed “repairs,” he said.

Minnesota law requires the landlord to make necessary repairs to the rented space. There are steps tenants can take if they feel their landlord is not holding up his or her end of the agreement.

First, document the problem with photos and in writing. Send the landlord a letter explaining the things that need to be fixed and set a deadline of two weeks to fix them. Keep a copy of this letter.

If the landlord fails to make the requested repairs, file a rent escrow action in housing court. This allows the tenant to then place each month’s rent in escrow with the court and asks the court to order the landlord to make the repairs.

Finally, if the landlord still has not completed the repairs, tenants can either sue the landlord in conciliation or housing court under the Tenants Remedies Act, or sue for rent abatement, which is the return of part or all of the rent paid.

Never withhold rent. This gives a landlord grounds for eviction. A landlord cannot retaliate by evicting a tenant who contacted an inspector and followed the legal procedure.

Both city and state laws further define tenant rights. The city sets a maximum number of tenants allowed to live in each unit. However, landlords will sometimes ignore these rules and overcrowd a unit in order to make more money. If tenants question the capacity, they can call a housing inspector to look at the unit.

According to Minnesota law, a landlord may enter a tenant’s home only after giving the tenant reasonable notice – usually 24 hours. Even then, a landlord can only enter for a “reasonable business purpose,” such as showing the unit to prospective tenants or fixing things inside the property.

Though tenants often have to fight for their rights, the student legal service has seen victories.

“We’ve had a lot of landlords change the way they do business because they’re tired of dealing with our office,” Dane said. “Some days I wonder if we’re making any progress, but I look back at the court cases we’ve won, and I see we are.”

Despite some alarming stories that come up when talking about renting and tenant safety, Dane said most students will have a smooth renting experience with few hassles.

“There are a lot of good landlords on campus. The big mistake first-time renters make is they view their landlord like other responsible adults they know: people who wouldn’t take advantage of them,” Dane said. “You can’t be too trusting. This is a business arrangement, and the landlord is there for the money, not to be your buddy.”

Michelle Lappin is a freelance. The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]