Correction Appended: This story identified Melissa Goldstein as the director off-campus housing. She is an adviser for off-campus housing.
A city ordinance designed to give students more time to look for off-campus housing came under fire from campus-area landlords during a forum yesterday.
Students and one of the ordinance’s key backers on the City Council defended it.
Campus Neighbors, a University-sponsored group made up of students, landlords, city officials and University staff, met to discuss the effects of the housing ordinance.
The ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council over vigorous objection from landlords last spring, prohibits landlords from showing a property until 90 days after a lease begins.
Alice Ehn, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association, a group composed mostly of area landlords, outlined what he called the negative effects of the ordinance.
Ehn said all of her concerns – which included issues of rent increases, cheating and a frenzy surrounding signings – were predicted last spring when the ordinance was passed.
Speakers at the meeting disputed whether or not the ordinance has caused a rent hike and price gouging.
“It comes as no surprise that this ordinance has raised rates,” said Tom Gruber, a co-owner of Gruber Management, an Ann Arbor landlord. “When you spread out the market, that’s how you get your rents.”
Ehn agreed, saying that the principle of supply and demand has justified raising rents because of the December surge of potential renters.
Council member Leigh Greden (D-Ward 3) posited another explanation for the rent increases this year. He suggested that abnormally large freshman classes in 2004 and 2005 caused an increase in sophomores and juniors this year looking for off-campus housing.
Students and landlords alike have tried to circumvent the new regulations.
Several tenant’s association members and landlords said they have heard rumors of both students and landlords cheating on leasing agreements by signing tenants before December.
Most of the cheating stories concerned waiver fees. The ordinance has loophole that allowes landlords and prospective tenants to sign leases early if the current tenants sign a waiver.
Ehn said some renters charged $100 fees in exchange for signing the waiver. Fred Gruber, co-owner of Gruber Management, cited a more costly incident. He said he heard reports that some renters had tried to charge $600 to several groups of prospective tenants for their waiver. Gruber said his firm wasn’t involved with the transaction, so he signed the house to the first group of tenants who approached him after the waiver was submitted.
Student representatives at the meeting said they had only heard a few stories of students exploiting the waiver loophole.
“I have heard very few stories of cheating, but that’s not the whole community,” said Matt Stoker, a member of the Michigan Student Assembly’s External Relations Committee.
Ehn said students who followed the rules were caught in a December signing rush.
“We predicted that there would be a frenzy and there was,” she said.
Bret Chaness, chair of the MSA Campus Safety Committee, acknowledged the rush.
“There is going to be a panic on the part of the students because they want the better properties,” he said.
Gruber said his company has already leased properties that would not normally be signed until spring because of the frenzy created by the ordinance.
Other rental companies have observed similar effects. Campus Management representatives Chris Heaton and Mark Hannaford said students were better prepared for the leasing deadline, but they said students were concerned about availability.
“From our perspective, there was a lot of pent-up demand about that signing point,” Hannaford said. “That says to me that people were worried.”
But at a University-sponsored housing fair last week, many students said they didn’t feel rushed to sign lease agreements.
At the meeting last night, representatives from student co-ops and fraternities also said that they supported the ordinance.
Greden, one of the ordinance’s strongest backers on City Council, said a housing rush is only perceived because community members have not adjusted to the new law.
“I don’t see a systematic problem with the law itself,” Greden said.
Hannaford also said that this year he noticed more people were delaying waiving their renewals in order to save their rentals for friends.
Melissa Goldstein, advisor of Off-Campus Housing for the University, said that listings on the University’s off-campus website are typical of this time last year.
“Right now we’re over 1,000 listings on the site,” she said. “There is a lot of housing out there.”
The ordinance mandates that City Council review the law this spring.
Nick Assanis, chair of MSA’s External Relations Committee and the assembly’s liaison to the City Council, said he supports the ordinance. Assanis said MSA is planning educational events about the ordinance.