Despite older houses and safety concerns, students enjoy off-campus housing

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 8:08pm

While many students embrace an old-fashioned ambiance in their off-campus homes, these homes often have potential for fire hazards due to risk factors associated with living in the college environment and older infrastructure.

Among an undergraduate population of more than 28,000 students, just under 40 percent live on campus, according to the University of Michigan housing website. Of the two-thirds who live off-campus, many are in houses, not apartments, including in the city's historic districts.

According to the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission’s Historic District Design Guidelines from 2012, houses in the historic districts of Ann Arbor represent American architecture from the 1840s to 1950s, and most were built during this time period. Represented styles include Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Vernacular among others.

Lisha Turner-Tolbert, Ann Arbor Rental Housing Services’ projects and programs manager, said some students live in historically sanctioned areas, such as the Old Fourth Ward, which is located on the north of East Huron Street.

Every two and a half years, Ann Arbor’s housing department inspects rental houses to make sure they comply with the Housing Code, chapter 105 of the Ann Arbor Code of Ordinances, and don’t present any hazards. It is then up to the property owners to fix any problems and make updates.

Turner-Tolbert said because these houses being part of the historic district, many of them are in good shape.

“The foundations and structures of these homes, and particularly with the historic district, those foundations are pretty solid,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve got a ton of houses that need to have a lot of overhaul or a lot of repairs done. As long as an owner has just regular maintenance done to their properties, with students going in and out, and changing and swapping students every year or so, it’s really just important for the property manager to have a regular maintenance program. From what we see, of course people are prepared for inspection. I don’t know how much fore-work is done before we get there. But when we get there, typically, people have just regular things they need to have done — not a whole lot of major damage.”

University alum Jason Okrasinski is the CEO and co-founder of Cribspot — a search engine that includes housing for University of Michigan students and can be used to find rental properties. The company serves as a middleman by signing long-term leasing contracts with owners or landlords and then finding tenants, collecting rent and providing certain amenities, among other things.

Okrasinski said he finds that some properties are more neglected than others.

“Some of the owners just don’t care,” he said. “They’ll do just the bare minimum to get through the inspection process or to get the safety in order, but they won’t go above and beyond.”

The Ann Arbor Fire Department, on the other hand, deals primarily with commercial houses. However, according to Fire Inspector Andrew Box, they often receive fire code complaints from concerned parents in the fall, when their kids are moving into these old houses. In this case, the fire department works with the housing department to fix failed smoke detectors or help with identifying access points to enter and exit the house in case of fire.

“I value the historic value of a home and the characteristics that they present, but they do present safety concerns due to narrow hallways, older construction, how fire travels,” he said. “When you have those older features, those concerns, and you mix in youth and the independence or limited supervision, it can be a formula for disaster.”

According to Box, national statistics find that 76 percent of fatal fires involve alcohol, and he said being on a college campus with off-campus houses only reinforces that statistic.

“That’s a staggering number,” he said. “A lot of universities and colleges require students to live on campus where the school controls the environment. After that first year, you’re allowed to control it yourself. You’re able to control what you bring into your own place. That’s where some of the more high-risk behaviors come into play. Alcohol is a leading contributing factor to that high-risk behavior.”

As for Ann Arbor, Box said there have been 20 fires from 2004 to 2016 related to student housing — on-campus and off. Of those 20, five were related to fraternity house fires. There is no data on whether alcohol played a role.

“We try to help people be protected and safe in their own homes,” Box said. “We offer fire safety education programs on-sight, where we’ll go into local houses, we’ll go into Greek life organizations, and we’ll give their chapters fire safety presentations where we’ll go over how to exit the home, what to do in the event of a fire, what to do in the event of a cooking fire.”

Students living in older houses said they know about of the possibly hazardous elements, but some also said they enjoy the more historic, quirky architecture, interiors and experience in the house.  

LSA sophomore Serena Sabuda lives in a house off of East University Avenue with six other people. Signs of the house’s age, she said, include exposed brick in the basement and attic, an old-fashioned radiator in the bathroom that no longer works, a cast-iron fireplace in her bedroom, steep attic stairs and uneven floors.

“My one housemate’s dad is an architect, and he said there is no way that’s regulation,” she said. “They’re way too steep and pretty narrow. That’s the stairs to the attic. But the stairs to the second floor — when you’re going down, if you’re tall, you could hit your head on the top.”

The house also contains a fire escape, something that is no longer included in the construction of houses.

Sabuda said she wanted to live in her house because it’s not too expensive and in a good neighborhood.  She added that she likes some of the older features.

“Some of the rooms have exposed brick wall, which I think is really cool,” she said. “My room has an old fireplace. I think it works so I’m going to use that in the winter. And the fire escape, I think, is cool too.”

Engineering sophomore Natalie Baxter lives with two other people in the lower level of a house built in 1910. There are two single apartments upstairs.

She said some of the older elements of her house include an outdated kitchen without a dishwasher, a heating system that consists of grates on the floor and a lack of air conditioning.

However, she said she likes some of the old-fashioned characteristics that give the house its charm, and that structural oddities and questionable safety features, her house is well-priced and a good college living environment.

“It’s nice that it’s older — the high ceilings, the crown moldings — it’s kind of more Victorian,” she said.