MSA educates first-time renters at tenant classes

by Bryce Haugen

After two years in Middlebrook Hall and one in Riverbend Commons, Patty Dickmann said, she’s ready to sign her first lease.

“I just want to be a conscious buyer,” said Dickmann, a physiology and psychology junior.

Since Monday, Dickmann and dozens of other University students have attended tenant workshops throughout campus. The sessions, which continue until Feb. 23, are part of the Minnesota Student Association’s efforts to educate first-time tenants.

Many new renters are naive and vulnerable to manipulation during lease-signing, said Anthony Dew, MSA Facilities and Housing Committee chairman, who organized the workshops.

“We don’t know what to look for,” he said.

Barbara Becker, an attorney at University Student Legal Service, offered words of advice to 10 students Wednesday at Riverbend Commons.

“Anybody signed a lease yet?” she asked before the workshop, receiving no response from the crowd. “That’s good.”

Becker told prospective renters to “do your homework” and look out for “red flags” before getting into any agreement.

She urged students to read entire leases, which she said include “a whole bunch of things that would be really easy to break.” These days, landlords often ban partying, Becker said.

“I wouldn’t have had a roof over my head if they would have had these kinds of party regulations at Iowa State University in the 1970s,” she said. “Be forewarned.”

Some red flags of renting include application fees that exceed $50 and excessive security deposits, which should be no more than one month’s rent, Becker said. And sometimes, she said, renters are not upfront about utility costs.

“Landlords: They’re not social workers. They’re not family friends. They’re business people,” she said. “It’s the bottom line for them.”

Becker said student renters who have landlord problems should air their grievances at the free-of-charge University Student Legal Service, in the West Bank Skyway.

This is the second year MSA, the Student Legal Service and Housing and Residential Life have offered the workshops.

Dew said a deadly house fire in fall 2003 and numerous student complaints inspired the idea.

So far this year, interest in the workshops has increased, he said.

“We’ve been surprised by the demand,” he said, citing

the 50 students who attended Tuesday’s workshop in Bailey Hall.

After Wednesday’s workshop, students said they found the event helpful. And some said they felt more cynical.

“Before, I didn’t know anything except (that) I didn’t want to live in a dump,” said Ellen Anderson, an advertising and art history junior.

Now, she said, she knows what to look for in a lease and is aware of her rights.

Dinnaken Properties Vice President Yvonne Grosulak, who has rented to students for 30 years, said it’s good for new renters to “know what’s going on.”

But MSA should invite landlords to speak at the workshops, she said, so students can hear their perspectives.

“There’s always two sides to every story,” Grosulak said. “We’re just trying to provide a decent place to live.”

The MSA Web site, which will be upgraded by March, also focuses on tenant education. In addition to expanded results from surveys that asked student renters to rate landlords, the improved site will feature tips and sample leases, Dew said.

“We’re trying to create a more-user-friendly (site) so the data can be accessed and compared more clearly,” he said.