From The Daily: Combatting exploitative off-campus housing in Ann Arbor

Monday, October 19, 2020 - 10:38am

Illustration courtesy of Jenna Scheen

Illustration courtesy of Jenna Scheen Buy this photo

It is now October in Ann Arbor and along with midterms comes another stressor for students: signing off-campus leasing agreements for the 2021-2022 school year. As with every year, landlords across the campus have started sending notices for renewals with a short time-frame for decisions. While the ongoing pandemic has created uncertainty around an in-residence 2020-2021 school year for students, this has not deterred landlords from pushing ahead with the lease renewals. This action brings into question not just the long-standing problem of early lease-renewal cycles and rising rent prices in Ann Arbor but also the ethics of landlords who do not put students’ best interests at the forefront.

Students being taken advantage of by those with wealth and power on college campuses isn’t new; graduate students had to go on strike this fall in order for the University of Michigan to meet their basic requests and needs. It’s now clear that reopening as the University did was not safe, and landlords benefitted. This situation is indicative of a much broader problem of businesses and institutions in our community taking its backbone — college students — for granted, leaving students with their hands tied. 

One reason why Ann Arbor landlords are able to take advantage of students in such a way is the scarcity of good housing options, which incentivizes students to lock in houses as early in the season as possible. Landlords likely do this to combat one of the few safeguards students have in the off-campus housing market, which is a city ordinance requiring landlords to wait a minimum of 70 days from the beginning of a lease-term to officially show or lease a property to prospective new tenants. This early leasing period requires many students to pay housing deposits almost a full year in advance. This may be particularly difficult for low-income students who cannot afford to let a leasing company hold onto a large deposit for almost two years.

The difficulty of paying a housing deposit a year early has been exacerbated by the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, where many families lost their primary source income and need the increased flexibility of holding onto this money for several more weeks or months. While the pandemic would seem like a great time for landlords who cater primarily to students to be accommodating and understanding, many have instead decided to capitalize on the insecure nature of student housing. The pandemic has enabled landlords to act with greed, and to act quickly, pushing students into a corner where they must choose between housing insecurity for the following school year or risk putting down a security deposit, sometimes over $1000, on a property in which they may never live. These landlords are, in essence, preying on an inescapable vulnerability shared by and fairly unique to nearly all college students. 

Rising rent prices in Ann Arbor further exacerbate the stress of the financial burdens that an early lease cycle creates.The city consistently ranks as one of the most expensive college towns to live in. Rent prices have been rising at a whopping 15.9% year-over-year, second only to Gainesville, Fla., the home of the University of Florida. There are several factors that have led to this high rent inflation in Ann Arbor. With off-campus student property occupancy at 98%, Ann Arbor is a landlord’s market that leaves little power to tenants. Landlords are therefore able to get away with higher rents. Further, the fact that the University of Michigan has a relatively wealthy student body doesn’t help with the rising rent prices. According to a study by The New York Times, the median income of the U-M student’s family is $154,000, with about 9.3% students belonging to the Top 1% families in the U.S. by household income. Only 3.6% of students come from the bottom 20% in terms of household income. As long as students are able to pay the increasing rents, the trend of rents increasing will continue. 

Therefore, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board urges the Ann Arbor City Council to extend the Early Leasing Ordinance. Moving back the leasing deadline is necessary to allow students to fully consider their housing needs and options for the next year. For example, in Pittsburgh, Pa., which is home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University, the typical lease renewal cycle for off-campus student housing doesn’t start until spring. That gives students ample time to decide if they like their current apartment and roommates, both of which are major factors in considering a lease renewal. It also allows students to have increased financial flexibility, since they don’t have to pay a housing deposit a year in advance. 

However, it’s important to note that extending the ordinance will not solve all of the problems with early leasing. Many Ann Arbor real estate companies have found ways to creatively interpret this ordinance. These leasing companies allow students to reserve, with a deposit, properties several weeks before the deadline. Students will then be provided with the official paperwork and tour on the 70th day of the current lease. If a student fails to sign the lease, they will lose their reservation deposit. This in effect allows real estate companies to lease their units before they are legally allowed, with no official leasing paperwork completed until the deadline passes. So, while regulations help to an extent, the onus is on students to unanimously organize themselves to sign leases only in the spring semester in order to bring a lasting change in moving the leasing cycle to later in the school year.

Therefore, the Editorial Board also urges students themselves to fight against this early leasing period that landlords enforce on campus. While the situation may appear hopeless, students do have the power to inform themselves of the risks of buying into this transparent money-grab by our community’s landlords. We can use our voices to direct fellow students to resources that inform them of the nature of a student tenant-landlord agreement. We can use our voices to direct students to landlords who treat tenants with dignity and respect. And we can use our voices to make very public the leasing companies in our community whose efforts are transparently profit-based. Unfortunately, our primary source of power in this instance is merely to expose large Ann Arbor landlords like Landmark and Campus Realty, who have long-standing, well-known reputations on campus of treating their tenants poorly — at least according to online reviews.

Because getting the entire student body together will become a challenge as long as there is a dearth of good housing options, an effective way to tackle this challenge is for the University to step in and offer more low-cost on-campus housing at convenient locations across campus. Since applications for on-campus housing start later in the spring, this reduces the pressure on students to quickly lock in off-campus options this early in the year. And regarding rising rent prices, the onus is once again on the City Council to enforce rent control. Alternatively, the University should step in to offer more low-cost, on-campus housing. This will help reduce rents and make the housing process more equitable for students from all sections and financial backgrounds. There is urgency in taking such measures, particularly in the wake of the pandemic which has disproportionately impacted students from lower-income financial backgrounds.

At least on the local level, politicians have attempted to make housing more affordable around Ann Arbor through the proposal of a new tax levy, revenues from which would be dedicated to the construction of new affordable housing units throughout the city. The proposal, commonly referred to as Proposal-C, is on the November election ballots. 

That’s a huge step for the City of Ann Arbor, but as of yet there are little details as to where these new units may be constructed. Students have a voice in this. Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) has been vocal in his desire to maintain flexibility with regards to potential sites for new affordable housing construction. Students who agree should feel empowered to contact the mayor’s office and communicate their beliefs. Student agency has been lacking on campus for much of this year, especially with regard to the University’s substandard protocols for managing COVID-19. Affordable housing can make a tangible difference to thousands of students at the University, just as improving COVID-19 safety measures made a tangible difference to the Graduate Employees’ Organization. Students with a vested interest in obtaining a more affordable living situation on campus should make their voices heard, just as the GEO did. This year has shown us nothing if not that progress has to be driven from the grassroots.

This year brings a unique opportunity for students to join forces. The uncertainty about campus life next year caused by the pandemic is making students more apprehensive about signing leases before there is more information about the state of the pandemic next fall. The national economic downtown has exaggerated the need for many students to hold onto their housing deposits for as long as possible. Freshmen are forced to sign leases with classmates whom they have known for only two months in an unfamiliar city with very little guidance from the University (freshmen, you should talk to upperclassmen in your classes about where you should live, or visit the University’s off-campus housing website) and with little knowledge of the housing process in Ann Arbor. And the move of Fraternity & Sorority Life rush to the second semester means that many students will likely not know if they will be living in a fraternity or sorority house or at a different off-campus location until January. This combined uncertainty allows Ann Arbor landlords to take advantage of students, which we cannot let stand any longer. Together, the students of the University of Michigan can delay the beginning of the leasing process.


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