Tenant rights emphasized in light of tight market

Erin Norton

As the school year winds down, many leases for rental properties in the area are expiring, leaving students scrambling to secure housing for the summer and next fall.
Caty Royce of the Community Stabilization Project, a nonprofit organization committed to organizing tenants to fight for affordable housing, said the 1 percent vacancy rate of the Twin Cities makes it “the tightest rental market in the nation.”
In the area immediately surrounding the University, Royce speculates the vacancy rate might very well be much less than 1 percent.
This tight housing market with more people fighting for fewer available units leads to more opportunity for the abuse of tenants, said Barb Boysen of University Student Legal Services.
There are numerous cases presently pending in her office regarding students and their landlords. In a high-demand rental area like the University community, there are many complaints by tenants of properties desperately in need of repair. Boysen said that many of the local properties are old and run down.
In such a tight market, owners of even substandard properties can command high rents.
If a property is in need of repair, Boysen recommends that tenants contact their landlords with written requests so that they can keep records of all correspondence.
“(It is) really important to try and screen a potential landlord or property owner before signing a lease,” said Deb Marsh, coordinator of customer service and communication with the University Housing Office.
Both Boysen and Marsh strongly caution against signing a lease without full understanding of it in its entirety.
If there are serious repairs of a unit that are requested but not attended to, a rent reduction might be legally possible. In cases where landlords are not properly tending the property, there are many resources available for tenants.
“People assume the legal process is so complicated they shouldn’t bother, but this is not necessarily true in housing court,” Boysen said. “Withholding rent is not the ideal way to handle rental problems.”
Instead, tenants should take advantage of resources. For example, the Minneapolis Inspections Office will send an inspector free of charge to a unit in question, and it costs only $20 to file a claim in housing court.
Besides unmaintained properties, there are other ways tenant rights can be violated. Many renters are unaware that interest must be paid by landlords on all security deposits. The current annual interest rate is 3 percent and begins to accrue from the first day of the month following payment of the deposit, not from the beginning of the lease or occupancy.
If within 21 days after the termination of the lease or vacancy of the property, the owner has not either returned the deposit in full, or provided a written response for withholding any portion of the deposit, then, according to the law, the tenant is entitled to receive twice the amount of deposit paid.
It is also illegal for the landlord to enter a rented property without notifying the tenant. The law protects tenants’ privacy and provides that there must be reasonable prior notice, commonly understood as 24 hours, before entry of a unit except in cases of emergency such as flood or fire.
“A tenant should never be unaware of any entry by a landlord,” Boysen said. If someone does enter the property, a note must be left providing a reason for entry. If this is not done, a landlord might be subject to a $100 penalty for unlawful entry.
There are constant battles between tenants and their property owners, as well as countless stories regarding abuses of tenant rights. University student tenants have not only public resources for legal assistance, but University resources as well.
The University Student Legal Services is available for consultation for legal assistance at little or no cost. Deb Marsh at the University Housing Office says her office takes complaints on landlords in the area because some of them pay for listings on the off-campus housing Web site. Ultimately, Marsh said, “Student Legal Services is an excellent resource.”
“If students don’t exercise their rights as tenants and challenge illegal actions by landlords, student tenants will continue to be exploited in this tight rental market,” said Jack Cann, a housing attorney for the nonprofit Housing Preservation Project.