Housing search presents challenges for off-campus students

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 - 8:08pm
Finding housing: the exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, endeavor all University students partake in some form or another during their time in Ann Arbor. 
With only guaranteed housing for freshman at the University, many upperclassmen often engage in a adventurous search for other housing options at the beginning of their sophomore year. This presents a challenge that many students may not be able to handle — especially in the first few weeks of a fall semester.
To find housing that is both close to campus and affordable may seem impossible for some. And the increasingly competitive nature of Ann Arbor housing means students are often forced to sign leases earlier in the season each year.

The process is a major source of concern according to a survey of about 100 students who live off-campus conducted by The Michigan Daily.

Business junior Sarah Mironov said her experience searching for off-campus housing, after living in her sorority house sophomore year, was high pressure and stressful. It also began immediately after returning to campus in the fall, while she was still adjusting to campus life.

“I feel like Michigan is a unique school in that, a) students don’t live in dorms beyond their freshman year and b) the housing process starts incredibly early,” Mironov said. “Whereas my friends at other schools start thinking about the housing process toward the winter, even into the spring, for us we had to start looking for housing during our first few weeks on campus.”

Yet the process doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to Mironov, who signed a lease on Sept. 19.

“(The process) seemed pretty average for my whole group of friends,” Mironov said. “I have some friends who didn’t sign until October but I also know people who signed leases during Welcome Week.”

Many students form groups and commit to properties under similar circumstances. According to the survey, 41 percent of off-campus students sign a lease 10 to 12 months in advance of move-in.

When unable to sign a lease, some will resort to signing a reservation, which ensures them first rights to sign the property if the occupants at the time do not renew a lease. The reservation and renewal system means many properties never appear on the University’s listing site or even the sites of property management companies.

The City of Ann Arbor requires property management companies and landlords to wait 70 days after the start of the current tenants rental period before showing the property or signing a lease with a new party. If the average rental period is around Sept. 1, that means it’s not until November that student should be even able to start looking at properties.

However, by not having formal tours of a given property, but rather unscheduled tours at the will of current tenants, and having signed intent to lease forms — or rather by ignoring the city ordinance entirely — landlords and students, alike, avoid waiting until mid November to firm up housing plans for the following year.

Jon Keller manages hundreds of houses for rent in Ann Arbor. He’s also a University alum, and with that perspective, Keller said, his company has developed a particular understanding of what it means to be a landlord for tenants who are primarily students — though he’s seen many landlords do it the wrong way.

“We’ve worked with every landlord there is in town and we know who keeps their word and who doesn't,” Keller said in an interview with the Daily. “I just feel bad for the kids who get bad landlords.”

Companies who disregard the ordinance that requires waiting until 70 days after the current tenancy start date to sign a lease with new prospective tenants are fined by the City of Ann Arbor. Because of the competitive nature of students’ search for off-campus housing, however, many companies pay the fine and continue to lease to students in the early fall months.

“A lot of landlords are just flat out disregarding this rule because the fine is a thousand bucks and there’s never been anyone fined that I know of. The fine is so proportionally small compared to a $60,000 lease listing, that it’s really a cost of doing business for some of these bigger companies.”

Keller added that though he does accept reservations, he does not show or sign leases until after the 70 day period.

“Yes, people are signing left and right — just not with us,” Keller said.

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Last week, an unofficial off-campus housing fair was set up on the second floor of the Michigan Union, and in attendance were housing management companies, like Cappo Management and Campus Realty, as well as the larger student-targeted apartment buildings, like Landmark Apartments. About twenty students circulated the room, others filtering in and out.

The University’s Beyond the Diag program, an effort to promote the University’s engagement with off-campus students organized by the Dean of Students’ office, sponsors yet another fair on Nov. 4.

In an e-mail, Molly Labrousse, Beyond the Diag program manager, described the University’s various resources, which included a listing site, descriptions of each Ann Arbor neighborhood, and the availability of staff members in the Dean of Students office to help with any questions students may have.

In addition to both North and Central campus housing fairs, the University offers an Off-Campus Housing website that includes rental listings, but at the time this article went to print, a search for a two or three bedroom apartment in the East Packard area yielded a meager five results. And some of the results that appear are for leases that begin in May rather than the standard September start date.

However, Engineering sophomore Brent Patterson said there is still a lack of information regarding off-campus housing options and companies as well as a variety of unhelpful University resources.

“I didn’t really like that — it was showing properties that weren’t really relevant, out by Pinckney,” Patterson said.

He said he relies more on sites like Cribspot and Yelp to know what houses were available and to get a sense for the reputation of the company, building, or landlord.

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The Daily's survey suggests that many students are generally happy with their housing once they find a property.

On average, students rated their experience with their current landlord a 6.7 on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 signifying complete satisfaction. Forty-one percent of respondents cited unsatisfactory quality of the house or apartment as the primary issue they had encountered during their time living off campus.

Other prominent issues students indicated in the survey included unresponsiveness from their landlords, and unclear or confusing lease agreements between tenants and landlords. However, 33 percent of students said overall they had no complaints overall about their landlord or property management company.

For those that still don’t want to tackle the process, other options are still available, such as Greek life organizations and properties offered through Inter-Cooperative Council housing — also known as co-ops. There are seventeen co-ops in Ann Arbor, sixteen of which are on Central Campus and one of which is on North Campus. There are 65 different registered sororities and fraternities on campus as of Oct. 6.

In the Greek system, housing policies and lease durations can vary from house to house. Many of these organizations rely on involvement and seniority rankings to determine room assignments, and students pay rent via the organization.

Co-ops offer students flexibility in regard to the timing of their housing decisions, as well as the length of lease, while also providing for more affordable, hassle-free off-campus housing, according to Linder president Courtney Smeenge, an LSA senior.

“Every house has a different field, but the guiding principle among the coops is that it’s affordable housing for students and no landlords involved,” Smeenge said. “It’s cool that way because it’s an autonomous organization where house members have control.”

Co-ops function on a first come-first serve basis, but they offer single semester contracts as opposed to 12-month contracts. Smeenge added there are often openings during the semester and a wide selection of houses that may have openings. They also have a waitlist system if students are hoping for a particular house.

Rent typically includes utilities, food, and, of course, a room. There are no unexplained fees and the house is managed by the Inter Cooperative Council rather than a traditional landlord.

“You just have all of these different costs coming together and then you’re buying food on top of that, so it’s nice here because our rent is everything — it’s all in one package,” she said.

Co-ops and Greek life housing present alternatives to the self-driven, independent search for off-campus housing that many, if not most students, will undergo at some point during their time at the University.

There is a huge variety and selection when it comes to  property management companies in Ann Arbor — landlords range from large companies owning or managing 50 houses to an individual landlord who owns one, maybe two properties.  

In the end, Keller, who rents many properties in the city, said it’s important that students understand the commitment they’re making when signing a lease and find a house that fits their needs and budget.

“They don’t really know and they are willing to sign things because they like a house, they think it’s pretty, or they don't read the lease — or worse, they sign with (a company) whose lease is garbage,” he said. “There is certainly a naivety.”