When a couple knocked on Rackham student Jeffrey Lockhart’s door on Nov. 4 asking if he was planning on renewing his apartment lease, Lockhart knew something wasn’t right.
As a tenant of Oxford Companies, a popular Ann Arbor real estate company, Lockhart said he was surprised to find prospective tenants outside his home asking about his plans to renew so that they can potentially take over his lease next year. Lockhart said he received an email from the leasing company that said “leasing season is upon us.”
“(Oxford Companies) wrote the email basically as if the new ordinance had not happened and that leasing season was now in early October, which it of course is not anymore because that is the whole point of the new ordinance,” Lockhart said.
In September, the city of Ann Arbor approved a new leasing ordinance to protect students from being forced into signing leases nearly a year before the lease was planned to start. Multiple stakeholders were involved in the development of the legislation, including the Graduate Employees’ Organization, Central Student Government, tenants and landlords.
The new leasing ordinance ensures landlords are unable to show a property to new tenants until 150 days prior to the expiration of the current lease. Previous legislation allowed landlords to begin showing properties to prospective tenants 70 days into the current lease. In opposition to the new ordinance, landlords filed a lawsuit in September against the city of Ann Arbor.
Now, many tenants are saying that landlords are finding loopholes in the new ordinance and pressuring students in current leases to renew their contracts much earlier than the accepted time period.
Engineering senior Nathan Nohr is currently a resident of Prime Student Housing, a local housing authority. In a statement to The Michigan Daily, Nohr said there is a waitlist process for current residents. According to Nohr, a reservation requires paying one and a half months of rent, which will give residents priority to sign in March — a move Nohr said is unfair.
“Prime Student Housing notified current residents in September that we would need to resign our lease or else they would open up reservations for our apartment,” Nohr wrote. “This circumvents the ordinance and still requires students to renew early in the year and now forces other prospective residents to make a hefty reservation if they want to make sure to get a place. If students decide not to act on the waitlist reservation they lose the rent reservation fee.”
As a GEO member in the union’s housing caucus group, Rackham student Lucy Peterson said the legislation was widely supported by GEO members since many in the organization have experienced their own issues with housing as graduate students.
“From being graduate students living in the city for a while, a lot of us have experienced issues with early leasing,” Peterson said. “Graduate students have to handle a lot of precarity in their work because we could be needing to do research one semester, we could get a job and have to move. So the idea of having to sign a lease 10 months in advance is a huge burden on graduate students in particular.”
Peterson said she believes some landlords are using bribes and threats to encourage tenants to sign the leases early.
“(Some landlords are) counting on tenants being afraid and isolated and worried about their housing security to get them to renew,” Peterson said. “So landlords are free to use pressure, coercion, manipulation, bribes and threats in order to get their existing tenants to renew or to say that they’re not going to renew.”
CSG President Nithya Arun, a Public Health senior, said she also received an email from University Towers — a popular student housing apartment complex — saying they are ready to start signing leases for next year. She said that CSG has received many complaints from students who expressed frustrations about their landlords disregarding the new ordinance.
“I immediately thought that the leasing period is not supposed to be open until March, so that seems like a violation,” Arun said.
Lockhart said there is also a power dynamic that exists between landlords and tenants, making the effort to stand up for tenant rights difficult for some renters who do not necessarily understand the City Council rules.
“If I didn’t follow local city council ordinance stuff and if I wasn’t paying close attention to this, I’d have no idea that I didn’t have to make that decision now,” Lockhart said. “These are the people that control whether you have housing, how much you pay for housing, they have a lot of power and it’s very easy for landlords to make people’s lives miserable.”
Arun said she and other CSG members felt very passionate about housing issues since they have also experienced issues with leasing before. Despite all the effort put forth by CSG, GEO and City Council to pass this legislation, Arun said the same issues are still prevalent.
“A lot of shareholders spent time crafting this piece of legislation and making sure students would benefit from it and not be pressured to sign leases early, and now it almost feels like nothing has changed,” Arun said.
Since landlords now have to wait longer than they did in previous years to sign leases for their properties, many are offering voluntary waitlists for new tenants to join, according to Jordan Else, a landlord with Wessinger Properties. Else has been involved with the Ann Arbor housing market as a resident, parent of a U-M student and now as a landlord with her husband.
The concept of the voluntary waitlist varies with each landlord, but the concept allows renters to reserve a spot in a certain building or unit in advance without officially signing a lease since leases cannot be signed at this time, Else said.
Else said she is in support of the ordinance and that she feels that there is confusion about how the ordinance affects leases that begin in May versus those that begin in September. With the new ordinance, she said that new May leases can now be signed in early December and September leases can be signed in March.
“I think part of why all this isn’t working great and has historically not worked great is there’s an education piece that’s missing,” Else said.
With full intention to support the ordinance, Else explained how she and her husband will move forward with their plans to begin leasing for next year while abiding by the new rules. With these changes, she said that their largest fear is certainty moving into the new leasing season.
“Our group houses are on May leases and our plan is that we will drop them a note about renewal starting in early November and they’ll essentially have 30 days to make a decision about renewal,” Else said. “Then we will start showing and signing at the 150 day mark, which would then be early December. It’s affecting us because we are nervous that because so many people are not following (the new ordinance), we might have a lot of trouble leasing.”
Else said her leasing company is not implementing a voluntary waitlist since she doesn’t think it is in the spirit of the ordinance.
“Our decision is that we’re not doing waitlists because we think of that as exactly signing a lease and that completely defeats the purpose of the ordinance,” Else said. “Ultimately, I don’t think (the new ordinance) is going to affect us tremendously, but it is affecting us because I am sad for the students and sad that this plan didn’t have the impact that they had hoped.”
Else also said there needs to be more accountability and stricter consequences for landlords who are found to violate the new ordinance. Currently, the city of Ann Arbor encourages residents to report landlords who defy the ordinance. If guilty, the landlords are fined $500.
“I do think that one thing that is problematic is that the burden is on the victim,” Else said. “In addition, the fine for the landlord is $500, and there’s no further consequence with the city or with your certificate of occupancy. That fine being so small is troublesome, so most people are just going to say ‘I’ll take that risk, that’s fine.’”
Daily Staff Reporter Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the new Early Leasing Ordinance allows tenants a “right to renew” their current lease until 150 days before the lease expires. This clause was introduced during preliminary discussions at City Council in July, but was ultimately removed in an amendment and is not in the approved ordinance.