Students empowered by housing rights

by Jessica Thompson

Despite an increasingly tight rental market, students should not feel forced to settle for unsuitable housing, said Barbara Boysen, a legal assistant with University Student Legal Service.
Students, just like any other residents, are granted rights in housing matters such as general maintenance, privacy and return of deposit.
“Because of decreased options, many people are willing to accept substandard living conditions, and landlords can take advantage of this,” Boysen said.
Many students avoid confrontation because of a perception that quality housing is not affordable, Boysen said.
“There exists a critical lack of housing in the marketplace,” said Charlie Warner, executive director of HOME Line. HOME Line is a nonprofit organization devoted to lobbying for subsidized housing and advocating rights for low-income renters.
“This is a problem which is particularly apparent in low-income neighborhoods such as the University,” Warner said.
The current vacancy rate for the Minneapolis area is slightly above 1.5 percent, as compared to the 5 percent rate that is considered indicative of a healthy housing market, Warner said. Around the University, the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent.
Housing prices around the University have remained stable despite the tight market, said Deb Marsh of University Housing and Residential Life.
However, rental rates are still disproportionately large, Warner said.
“Affordable housing is supposed to mean that people do not spend over 30 percent of their income on housing, and it is simply not feasible that this is the case with University students,” he said.
Boysen said that one of the most effective ways to prevent difficulties is to document and maintain copies of everything, so that the tenant can provide proof of all transactions.
“The tenant-landlord relationship is a business one; you simply cannot operate on trust,” she said.
Perhaps the most serious problem is that competition for affordable housing often leads to a decrease in quality housing, Marsh said.
According to Minnesota state law, landlords are required to keep units fit to live in and in reasonable repair. Vague wording, however, can lead to disputes over what is considered to be livable.
The current lack of housing can lead to manipulation and abuse of tenants, Boysen said. Of the 300 to 400 cases involving landlord-tenant disputes handled by Student Legal Service each year, Boysen said that the majority involve problems with maintenance issues and failure to return deposits.
“Students should be aware that they are not powerless,” Boysen said. If serious repairs are not conducted within a reasonable amount of time, for example, tenants may request that their unit be inspected by a city housing official.
After an inspection and if violations are found, the tenant might be able to receive a rent reduction, also known as rent abatement. In such cases, the landlord is given a set amount of time to repair the problems.
Another important renter’s right is the right to privacy. Minnesota law states that landlords may only enter a unit after attempting to give a reasonable notice, which is generally defined as 24 hours. Except in cases of emergency, the landlord must provide a reasonable business purpose for entrance.
Many students have reported not receiving full security deposits for reasons they believe are inaccurate, Boysen said. By law, landlords are required to either refund the security deposit with interest — currently at 3 percent — within 21 days, or to provide a written explanation for forfeiture of any of the deposit.
It is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant, raise a tenant’s rent, cut services or otherwise adversely change the rental terms if the actions are in retaliation to a tenant’s attempt to enforce their rights.
Knowledge of rights such as these can prevent feelings of frustration and intimidation among students.
It is “ultimately up to the tenant to decide what to demand for living conditions,” Boysen said. But students should be aware that they do have resources available that will work in their favor, such as Student Legal Service.