Off-campus housing rights addressed by new campaign

“Rent Smart” aims to educate students about their rights as renters and a landlord’s responsibilities.

Michelle Griffith

University of Minnesota graduate student Uyen Pham’s landlord rarely replies to her messages regarding maintenance problems. She pays rent through the Venmo app and has not signed a lease. 

The situation made Pham feel stressed, so she decided to seek legal help at Student Legal Service. 

SLS launched the “Rent Smart” campaign late October to inform students about their rights as tenants and of landlord’s housing responsibilities. An uptick in the number of complaints from students concerning their landlords or leases prompted SLS to start the campaign. Approximately 77 percent of students at the University live off campus, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“Most students don’t know their [tenant] rights, but that’s what you expect — they’re first-time renters,” said Bill Dane, a senior staff attorney at SLS. “That’s why they’re particularly vulnerable.” 

Last week, the campaign held workshops in four University dorms to inform students about the basics of renting, signing leases and renters’ rights. It saw approximately 30 to 40 students in each dorm, with Middlebrook Hall having the highest attendance at around 70 students, said Brianna Hanson, SLS Board of Directors member. This Monday through Friday, SLS is holding group lease review sessions to examine the leases of popular high-rise apartments near campus. 

One of the most common housing complaints SLS receives concerns inadequate housing conditions, Dane said. Many of the complaints involve landlords not keeping the property up to standard, he said. 

“It’s not legal per se to do that,” Dane said. “The reason [landlords] are able to get away with it in a lot of circumstances is that run-down properties … [have] cheaper rent,” Dane said. He added that low rent is often a student’s top priority, so students are often content with substandard conditions. 

According to a Minnesota statute, landlords are required “to maintain the premises in compliance with the applicable health and safety laws of the state, and of the local units of government where the premises are located during the term of the lease.”

SLS chooses a different legal issue pertaining to students to highlight in its annual campaign. The services SLS provides are covered for students under student service fees, and it receives about 50 complaints a week from students, Dane said. 

Dane said he’s worked for SLS for 33 years. Many of the student complaints he said he’s seen this fall semester concern poor housing conditions noticed at move-in.

“The codes that the city maintains … those are minimum standards,” Dane said. “[The city is] not trying to set a standard that’s impossible for a landlord to meet. It’s a standard that a landlord should be able to meet without a whole lot of concern.”

Katy Willmus, a sophomore studying journalism, said she’s heard stories about her friends’ off-campus difficult housing experiences, especially problems with getting out of leases and finding a subtenant. Wilmus said she plans to continue living in University housing so she doesn’t have to deal with the stress of leasing a property.

Dane advises students who are having trouble with their living conditions or landlord to call the city’s inspection department. 

“The threat of having inspections come can sometimes get a landlord there immediately,” Dane said. Landlords often do not want inspectors to view a property, because the inspectors will often find more problems on top of the one they were initially called to inspect, he added.