Tenants need to learn their rights

Having rented about 15 apartments in the last nine years, I know I am only one of the hundreds of tenants who’ve endured confrontations with landlords.
Every aspect of the landlord and tenant relationship favors the landlord. This is especially true concerning tenants in low- to moderately-priced housing because they are much less likely to have access to legal assistance or know the law.
This leads to a very low number of civil cases against landlords. The large majority of documented court cases filed by and favoring landlords supports and perpetuates the existing stereotypes of the irresponsible tenant. This leads to an overwhelming lack of support for tenants’ rights.
Landlords are businessmen. While they are not necessarily as bad as Joe Pesci in “The Super,” they are interested in making money. New landlords quickly learn their legal responsibilities and how to use the law to their economic advantage: keeping the damage deposit, charging late fees and often managing to avoid making repairs.
Tenants generally just want a roof over their head. Many tenants just skim over the lease and then sign it. With only one day to move in, wanting to avoid paying for storage or a motel, such a tenant often fails to notice the chips in the paint or simply ignores similarly needed repairs.
The inequity between landlord and tenant often begins before a lease is signed. The landlord screens applicants and chooses a tenant. The tenant waits. On move-in day, the landlord might choose to give the tenant a check-in sheet where the new tenant describes existing damages. Usually a landlord will not issue a check-in sheet because doing so may remind a tenant to closely scrutinize the apartment’s condition.
Landlords often provide a list of damages and charges to the tenant after the tenant moves out. This document tells the tenant why only a portion of the damage deposit was returned. The landlord might keep $50-$100, depending on the size of the deposit. This is just enough to become significant income over the course of time, but not enough to prompt any one tenant to take a landlord to court to fight it. This is called “skimming.”
My former landlord skimmed me good. My previously undefeated anti-skimming check-out plan consisted of setting up a time to meet the landlord at the apartment to return the keys. With the landlord present, I would ask how the apartment looked. The usual response was “pretty good,” or something. Then I would ask if it was good enough to get my entire deposit back. I also had a ready-to-sign-sheet of paper that said the apartment was worthy of return of the full damage deposit, which landlord after landlord reluctantly signed. Only then I would give the landlord the keys. Landlords are not legally required to schedule a check-out meeting.
Landlords now provide the service of background checks to make sure a lunatic doesn’t move in to the building by making prospective tenants pay a non-refundable fee, usually about $35. This fee applies to every apartment you apply for. The irony is many landlords use the same tenant screening companies, so the information is the same.
Some screening agencies are prone to mistakes, which means good tenants with common names (such as Jim Anderson) could be unjustifiably denied an apartment. A coalition working on new screening legislation includes the Jobs and Affordable Housing Campaign, the Legal Services Advocacy Project, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the All Park Alliance for Change (a mobile home park collaborative), the Minnesota Tenants Network, the St. Paul Tenants Union and the Tenant Screening Advocacy Project.
Although an improved screening process will not solve all tenant-related problems, it is a good first step toward evening the playing field in the tenant-landlord relationship. In the meantime, good sources for more information about tenants rights and responsibilities and the leases that you may soon be signing include the University Student Legal Service, MPIRG and the Attorney General’s office.
This is Ed Day’s last column. Thanks Ed.