From student renter to scholar homeowner

Tear down boards from the windows of vacant houses and transform those buildings into your homes.

John Hoff

If you visualized the radical concept of student home ownership, you might get a picture of Thomas J. Ernste, a Ph.D. student at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication who is also a live-in landlord.

Ernste resides in a neighborhood called “Near Northeast,” but Ernste (who might be something of a trend-setter) created that label himself to emphasize he lives in Northeast Minneapolis, yet very close to campus.

Though Ernste lives close to Marcy-Holmes, a neighborhood packed with students who turn their hard-earned wealth over to landlords in the manner of sharecroppers or feudal serfs, Ernste is a homeowner who rents to three other graduate students. He describes them as “all smart people” and “serious students” in “a very studious environment.”

Like the oppressed rent-slave students of Marcy-Holmes, Ernste can walk a short distance to a No. 2 bus, which runs to campus constantly.

But Ernste doesn’t live in Marcy-Holmes. What Ernste calls “Near Northeast” is the Beltrami neighborhood, which was named after Giacomo Constantino Beltrami. According to a City of Minneapolis neighborhood profile, Beltrami was “an early 19th century Italian jurist, scholar and explorer.” It makes sense somebody like Ernste should live in a neighborhood named after a scholar.

Ernste’s adventures in home ownership began a couple years ago, when the Ph.D. student got sick of living in apartments and being forced to move all the time.

Also, Ernste doesn’t like living on the second story of a building. He likes to “spontaneously walk outside” into a yard, and doesn’t like feeling cooped up behind hallways and stairs. A condo was out of the question, so Ernste began to wonder, “How can I buy a house?”

Ernste found a realtor through a friend and was glad the realtor was “an objective third party” who understood real estate. After figuring out criteria such as price and proximity to campus, Ernste began looking at lots of houses. The only way to make home ownership feasible was to take in renters. An ad placed on craigslist.org helped Ernste determine there were enough grad students interested to make the venture practical.

Since Ernste didn’t have sufficient credit on his own, Ernste’s father helped by becoming a co-signer. This was a big step for his father, Ernste emphasized, a lot of trust for his father to extend.

Background checks are costly, but anybody who gets into grad school is, according to Ernste, probably somebody dependable. So Ernste reached out to grad students without paying for background checks. His three renters – who are also his roommates – study statistics, computer science and pharmacology.

Though Ernste won’t reveal how much his renters pay, he pointed out each pays “fifty bucks a month” for all utilities: gas, cable television, garbage, water and electricity.” Ernste takes care of the bill for Internet himself, and every renter-roommate has their own computer in their own room. There is no telephone bill to divide up because they all use cell phones.

Ernste won’t describe himself as a cool landlord, saying, “The minute you say you’re cool, that means you’re not,” but pointed out all the roommates renewed their year lease this August. Subletting is allowed. Ernste obtained property management forms and information from a CD packet he purchased at an office supply store. The forms contain standard stuff like “keep common areas clean.”

Ernste does all the yard work and shovels the snow, but the renter-roommates are welcome to do garden work. This year, Ernste and one other roommate had a successful garden, which provided food for homemade meals. They also grew flowers.

According to Ernste, home ownership helps his academic career because he is spending no more for housing than he did when renting, but has a much bigger and better place to live, plus equity in his house.

Not having a high income, Ernste was able to qualify for funding to cover his closing costs, which he describes as $5,000 in “literally, 100 percent free money.” Ernste is an asset to his neighborhood, taking care of the appearance of his house and once calling the city to remove graffiti on a cement traffic barrier.

Though he emphatically emphasizes students have to be careful not to get in over their heads financially, Ernste thinks the University should “actively pursue a public affairs agenda” to help qualified students pursue home ownership, especially in light of factors which “make the affordability of housing inevitably untenable for many students.”

Thomas J. Ernste is a fine example of how students could radically transform the North and Northeast neighborhoods of Minneapolis, blighted by hundreds of vacant buildings.

Student renters of the world, arise. Tear down boards from the windows of empty houses, and transform those buildings into your homes.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]