Off-campus housing presents an exciting and difficult situation for many students. It is exciting because of the opportunity to live either alone or with friends, often for the first time, but the frustration of maintaining a house or dealing with uncooperative landlords can be difficult.
Steve Antonucci is an LSA senior working toward graduation. He and his five housemates pay $3,000 per month plus all utilities for their home. Yet everyday this winter he awoke to discover the temperature in his house hovering at 50 degrees.
Antonucci said his house is so old and archaic that it is not fit to live in.
“We blow multiple fuses a day because the house was originally wired to draw a very modest amount of power,” he said. “We literally have to replace fuses every day.”
Antonucci said he was surprised that a house with inadequate heat, insulation and electricity could pass unnoticed by city inspectors every two and a half years.
Problems regarding the safety of Ann Arbor homes can be attributed to the budget cuts the city has been making in several departments, including the Building and Housing Inspection Department.
“The housing bureau has had the same level of staffing for the last 10-plus years,” said Housing Inspector’s Office Supervisor Dave Sebolt. “The rental population has increased, but to my understanding the city has not been on an expansion mode for quite some time.”
Sebolt said there are five inspectors working in the department and each inspector has one hour to inspect a single-family house, including travel time between appointments. The next appointment could be across town, up to 30 minutes away, leaving just 30 minutes for the inspector to see the property, he added. Homes like Antonucci’s, occupied with six people, are defined as sin-gle-family houses by the city.
“We have applied for more inspectors, but the city is also going through the process of being more efficient by cutting costs,” Sebolt said.
City inspectors only look for the minimum housing code requirements when inspecting a house, he said.
Yet LSA senior Vanessa Furtado’s house met the minimum requirements of the city’s housing code just six months before her porch collapsed and sent her to the hospital with a broken knee.
The Ann Arbor Tenants Union’s website advises tenants that inspectors favor landlords when checking homes.
While Sebolt said city inspectors do not accept bribes from landlords, he admitted that some landlords may treat inspectors to lunch, or may give them what he called a “token.”
Amy Ament, executive director of the AATU, said although there is no significant evidence that shows city inspectors favor landlords, it is recommended that tenants are present for the house inspection.
Since homes are inspected just every two and a half years, it is difficult for students – who often rent for just one or two years – to be involved in the inspection process.
“Tenants must know his or her rights. Often times, college is the first time students are renting and they are not aware of their rights and responsibilities,” Ament said.
City inspectors do not automatically check everything in the house. The tenant must inform the inspector of any problems with the house, Ament said.
Another important resource is the inspector’s office. If a student’s landlord is not responding to their complaints, they can call the city inspector, Sebolt said. “If anyone is seeing something that looks unsound they can call up the building inspection department and we will come out and inspect the house at no cost to the tenant,” he said.
Students often encounter landlords who will not work with them on problems. “Landlords often try to intimidate students by threatening eviction or not doing repairs,” Ament said.
LSA junior Julie Rajagopal said she felt intimidated by her landlords after they refused to remove the bats that were living in her apartment.
“My roommates and I called our landlord 100 times about the bats. They finally told us to chase them with a bucket and a broom,” Rajagopal said.
University Off-Campus Housing Advisor Melissa Goldstein said if a student has a problem with the safety of their home or is feeling intimidated by landlords, they can seek aid at the University Off-campus Housing Office or at Student Legal Services.
“We are here for the students and they need to feel OK coming to talk to us. If you are scared to report something, you need to contact us immediately,” she said.
The OCHO has many resources available to help make renting an apartment more comfortable for students, Goldstein said.
Many of the local landlords are enrolled in an OCHO program that provide them with benefits such as advertising, but they are required to abide by the rules of the program which are designed to help students. The OCHO offers counseling for students and mediation between landlords and students. If the student requests a mediation session with the landlord to discuss problems, the landlord is required to attend by the program rules.
Another resource designed to protect students from unreasonable, disrespectful landlords is the AATU, which can inform students of their legal rights and offer tangible support.
The group, located in the Trotter House on Washtenaw Avenue, is seeking volunteers and will train in housing law.
If a student has a fear of discrimination, the Fair Housing Center of Ann Arbor can assist with litigation or counseling, Ament said.
“Education and knowledge of tenant rights and the law are the most powerful tools to work against a bad landlord,” Ament added.