Eaton: David and Goliath: How college students everywhere get screwed by off-campus housing

Instead of a slingshot, try Student Legal Services.

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Emily Eaton

As someone who was crammed into an expanded triple (otherwise known as four college students living in a room barely meant to hold three) as a first-year student, housing is a touchy subject. On-campus living certainly has its downsides and tends to be more expensive than off-campus options. While dorm life isn’t ideal, at least students know who to hold accountable for their living conditions and reduce the risk of dealing with a landlord who wants little more than to pick up the rent check at the end of the month.

The average college student doesn’t know a whole lot about housing law or regulations. I mean, why would we? Many students transition from living at home to living in a dorm freshman year. Moving into an off-campus apartment or house after freshman year is a popular choice for many students, but it is not always as simple as finding a place in your price range and signing a lease. Students commonly live in neighborhoods like Dinkytown and Stadium Village, located conveniently within walking distance of campus. We often look for the easiest, cheapest option that fits our needs, giving little thought to the legal terms of the agreements we sign. The geographic restrictions, lack of knowledge and desire for cheap and easy housing all provide landlords with the perfect opportunity to take advantage of students.

One example of this? Bedrooms without windows. In most cases, a room cannot be considered a legitimate bedroom unless it has two areas of egress. Normally, this takes the form of a door and a window. I toured Northstar Apartments last fall and was shocked to be shown several so-called bedrooms that lacked windows entirely. While not necessarily illegal, as some older buildings can be grandfathered into current housing regulations without compliance, Northstar is not the only building to engage in this practice. The Marshall also lists properties as having multiple bedrooms, with at least one such “bedroom” lacking a window.

Emily Astfalk, a third-year at the University of Minnesota, volunteered with the tenants’ rights organization HOME Line after her own negative leasing experience. After moving into a subleased room for the second semester of her first year, she quickly discovered that the room she had agreed to live in was less than ideal. The furnace didn’t work reliably, and her room lacked a heating vent, meaning that she and her roommates were left without heat during the polar vortex. They ended up suing their landlord and were able to recover three months of rent for the winter months they endured without proper heat. However, students with less knowledge of tenant rights or willingness to pursue the matter might have suffered through those deadly conditions without compensation.

According to Astfalk, some of the most common issues students face are illegal clauses in leases. “The only reason landlords take so much advantage of students is because they know students don’t know the law, students are too poor to hire lawyers and that students are only going to be living there for one or two years, so they don’t have the motivation to stand up for themselves. … A lot of these problems are easily solvable if students learn their rights as tenants,” she explained.

There are many resources available to help students through the complicated and confusing process of leasing. If you have issues with your housing situation and your landlord isn’t being responsive, Student Legal Services is a great resource to begin with. HOME Line, the hotline that Emily worked for, can provide free counseling services to help you understand your rights and how to utilize them. Emily also recommends “How to be the Smartest Renter on Your Block,” a tenants’ rights guide that even provides example forms to help students sound more official.

Many see college students as being in a gray area between childhood and adulthood. College may be a transitory period in many of our lives, but students still deserve the same treatment and respect as any other renters. Know your rights, use your resources and read that fine print at the bottom of your lease, no matter how tiny and annoying and unnecessary it may seem.