Renters see tight housing market’s consequences

Sean McGrath

A tight housing market and renters’ rights ignorance could force some students to live in run-down apartments with inflated rent.

“At the University area, it’s Gouge City,” said Charlie Warner of HOME Line, a tenant advocacy group.

Warner said the tight Twin Cities housing market – particularly around the University campus – allows landlords to slack on their cleanup duties.

As a result, he said, apartments could have broken phone jacks, stained carpets, mysterious smells and dimly lit rooms without hope of problems being fixed.

Failure to repair apartment problems is the top complaint filed at the University Student Legal Service, said legal assistant Barbara Boysen.

Housing issues constitute most of the office’s complaints, she said.

“When the market is tight and it’s a seller’s market, tenants have no bargaining power at all,” Warner said.

Landlords also have the power to set rental costs, which Warner said are not always based on actual costs. Instead, rent prices depend on what tenants are willing to pay.

“Landlords don’t say ‘Oh, it will cost more to cut the lawn this year so I’ll charge this much more,'” Warner said.

To deal with poor landlord behavior, University Student Legal Service can send letters to landlords or for a fee, take cases to the small claims court.

The legal group charges $15 to file a small claims form, plus a $30 court filing fee – an amount far lower than the average security deposit. HOME Line takes some court cases but often chooses not to because of the organization’s limited number of lawyers.

“I think that it’s a misconception that it is expensive, but that is not necessarily true,” said Boysen.

Fear of moving also prevents some students from challenging their landlords, he said.

“Most people are afraid of their landlord,” Warner said. “They don’t want to lose their apartment because moving is such a pain. Renters are afraid to call a city inspector because it’s hard to find another place.”

But calling a city inspector to confront landlord behavior might be a good move, Boysen said. Most cities in the area have a code listing what a landlord is required to provide for apartment renters.

In Minneapolis, apartments must provide adequate heat – at least 68 degrees – at all times in the winter. Every room must have a window that can open, except for the bathroom and kitchen as long as they can be properly ventilated. Windows must have screens in the summer and storm windows in the winter.

If a building is not up to code, an inspector can order the landlord to make the needed repairs.

Boysen also recommended taking photographs of any damage when moving in and pictures of any changes that are made to the apartment.

Renters must also be cautious in choosing roommates, Boysen said.

Although the renters might have a joint lease, they are individually responsible for the rent, she said. In other words, if roommates don’t pay their shares of the rent, roomates who have paid are still responsible for others’ shares.

Student Legal Service representatives have seen an increase in cases where an apartment has more people living in it than are legally allowed, Boysen said.

“In an attempt to get more rent, landlords may be encouraging people to move in together,” she said.

Renters can contact the Inspections Division to find out the limits for their apartment buildings.

Boysen also said renters should keep records of all transactions, and any agreements should be dated and committed to writing. Cancelled checks – available from banks – are also helpful to prove a month’s rent has been paid.

“Tenants should ask questions,” Boysen said, such as finding out who manages the building. A caretaker doesn’t always have the authority to make changes, she said. Ownership records can also be found in city records in the city the building is in.

“Housing can be complicated, and our job is to explain what’s going on,” Warner said.