Renters’ survey results give handy housing stats

Neil Munshi

The Minnesota Student Association fully released survey results today that officials said they hope will make finding safe housing easier for students.

The survey allowed students to evaluate their landlords and buildings in many categories dealing with livability, safety, responsiveness, quality and noisiness, said Patrick Delaney, MSA chief of staff.

“Our goal here is to provide clear, concise information regarding safety, pricing and living conditions to the University of Minnesota’s community,” he said. “It has a revolutionary potential to make looking for a place to live so much easier and safer.”

After sending all-campus mass e-mails, MSA advertised on the University Web site and in The Minnesota Daily. It also went door to door, urging students to take the survey, Delaney said. Approximately 3,000 students responded.

Delaney said MSA plans to publish a comprehensive living guide on its Web site and for distribution around campus.

MSA consulted University Student Legal Service in 2003 to ensure the survey questions were balanced and professional, Delaney said.

Bill Dane, a University Student Legal Service attorney, said communication with MSA coincided with a presentation at a national student legal service conference at which The Ohio State University presented results of a renters’ survey.

Using that as a model, Dane said, MSA has come up with a survey that far exceeds the expectations of its original.

“It’s really a national model at this point,” he said. “You can get so much information from MSA’s Web site that it’s actually astounding.”

On the site, students will be able to click on a map of the University of Minnesota area and focus on a section where they want to live. A list of all the responses from that area will come up, and the student will be able to go through individual landlords, addresses, apartment buildings and homes to compare scores.

Dane said the timing for such a service is good because the housing market is starting to change with the construction of new high-rise apartment buildings around campus. Now, he said, there is more housing available than students to rent it.

“There’s not only a lot of housing, but there’s a lot of different styles of housing, and it comes in several price ranges, and so students have some choices they can make now,” he said. “That Web site does a good job of letting you know what students paid there for rent so that you have some sense of if there are some complaints about the property.”

Dane said the University of Minnesota’s metropolitan surroundings are unique, compared with other campuses that are mostly built in “college towns.”

He said the market caters to city living, not selling a great student-living experience.

While currently it’s not a major issue, students would be wise to look at a case at the University of Chicago, where the neighborhoods surrounding campus were allowed to deteriorate to the point at which students wouldn’t live there anymore, he said.

“We don’t want a situation where we have neighborhoods around the University that students won’t choose to live in,” he said. “Right now, that’s not the case, and that’s good, but that stuff doesn’t happen by accident. People have to work on it to make sure that things stay the same.”

Barb Becker, a University Student Legal Service attorney, said she hopes the survey will promote improvement among landlords who see it.

“I would hope that not only would it point out the disparities between certain landlords, but that maybe we could see an overall improvement in the choices that are available to students,” she said.

When Becker and Dane looked at a list of the landlords with the top five overall scores, they said they weren’t familiar with many of the names. Dane said it was because they were probably landlords students hadn’t had enough problems with to warrant legal counsel.

When shown the list of the bottom five overall scorers, Dane said he was aware of multiple cases involving each of the listed landlords.

Tim Harmsen, Dinkytown Rentals co-owner, said he thought his company came out pretty well, “at the bottom of the top.” He said he thinks the survey is a great tool for students and that he keeps a stack of the results in his office.

Harmsen said it was tough to compare brand-new apartment complexes to the old duplexes, triplexes and single-family homes he leases.

“It’s really hard to compare our stuff to a brand-new apartment with a movie theater, and a bowling alley, and a steam room,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve probably been in some of our places, and if you’ve talked to our tenants, I think they’re the best reference.”

Kelly Good, property manager at St. Anthony Village Apartments, which was tied for third place overall, said she thought the survey was a great idea.

She said she was surprised her complex was not No. 1.

Meanwhile, as students consider the scores on the site, Becker said, they shouldn’t let themselves get confused by the numbers.

She said that if they do, they should look to two benchmark questions on the survey: about referring the landlord to a friend and whether students would get out of their lease if they could.

“Even just taking a look at those two questions for the landlord on the survey, they can get a lot of information,” she said. “(They) pretty much tell you what you need to know about whether this is a landlord that the student thinks is good or not and if they would continue with the tenancy.”