To improve tenant-landlord relations, the Michigan Student Assembly is aiming to expand Student Legal Services to include a lawyer for housing issues, said Michigan Student Assembly General Counsel Jesse Levine.
Since the Ann Arbor Tenants Union — which provided advice to students renting off-campus properties — was dismantled in April 2003, MSA has been looking for a replacement to protect the rights of student tenants.
The AATU was founded in 1968 but lost MSA funding because its use of funds was “inefficient at best, and reckless at worst,” MSA President Jason Mironov said.
Prior to 2003, MSA provided the AATU with $20,000 yearly. During last year’s MSA presidential campaign, Mironov said in a debate that “$20,000 or more of (MSA’s) budget should be allocated to an organization like AATU, whether it is AATU or something like it.”
In the absence of the union, students and other tenants in Ann Arbor have had to depend on different resources to resolve conflicts with their landlords, and Levine said he has taken actions to replace the AATU.
One project underway is to coordinate with SLS and its director Doug Lewis. In September, Levine met with Lewis, to discuss options for providing students with legal aid in housing matters.
Levine and Lewis said they hope to implement an expansion project that was abandoned in the 1970s due to insufficient funds.
With a proposed 30 cent increase in student government fees, SLS could re-implement the Housing Legal Reform Project, which would add another lawyer to SLS. The HRP would be charged with doing research, lobbying City Council and litigating landlord/tenant issues, unlike current service attorneys at SLS, who deal with many legal issues.
“Without any publicity for housing disputes, each lawyer at SLS has about 80 cases on their desk. There are too many cases to handle all landlord tenant issues. Expansion of SLS is necessary,” Levine said about adding a new lawyer.
Although MSA tried and failed in 2002 to have the University Board of Regents implement a one-dollar increase in student fees for AATU — the increase was approved by the student body in an election, but not by the regents — Mironov said he is confident the current MSA administration can have a 30 cent increase approved by the regents
“I don’t think there was enough administrative support … to push the dollar fee increase that passed in 2002,” Mironov said.
The University administration, he said, was wary of allocating student fees to the AATU because its student staffers gave legal advice, which the University’s general counsel’s office felt they were not qualified to give.
“Did it take a fair amount of time to get to this point? Absolutely. But the fact is we’re not going into this with blinders on — we’re building support with the vice president for student affairs, the dean of students … with their support, I’m confident that the next (MSA) administration will be successful in bringing it to the regents later on this year,” Mironov added.
Unlike the union, SLS has the ability to initiate litigation in defense of tenants and can also provide legal advice to students, Lewis said.
The AATU was becoming a liability for MSA, Levine said, by offering legal advice without the authority to do so.
“Students on campus have a lot of other things to worry about. Where and how they live their lives shouldn’t be something they need to worry about,” Lewis said, stressing the importance of creating an organization to protect student tenants.
“Some landlords in town don’t maintain their premises properly,” he added.
Levine will be meeting with Dean of Students Susan Eklund on Wednesday to discuss implementing the HLRP.
Efforts that have already been made in improving the situation of tenants have been the establishment of an SLS advisory board composed of Lewis and University students.
Levine said that the board agreed unanimously that it needed to take action on housing issues.
The board felt that the housing rush in the fall, which pushed the lease signing date earlier and earlier, left students vulnerable and put them in danger of having unsafe living conditions or unfair financial contracts, due to ignorance or inattentiveness.
Under the supervision of Levine, and former MSA representative Samantha Woll, the SLS committee, in cooperation with the external relations committee of MSA, held three workshops last semester with the goal of educating student tenants.
Lewis, a featured speaker at the meetings, stressed warning signs for students to look out for in a contract. One such warning was a joint responsibility clause, which makes one tenant responsible for the other, if one should drop out.
Levine also aid the board wanted to create a housing website that would allow students and landlords to post reports or comments about their experiences and aid in resolving the housing issue.
But while the housing review site has been up and running since August and many students feel the website would be helpful, it remains relatively unknown and has few reviews posted.
“I’ve never heard of it, but it would’ve been helpful if we’d have known about it,” LSA freshman Christina Thompson said,
“It’d be easier to find a house, and it would be really helpful to be able to know about your landlord before you rented from them.”
Surati Batki agreed that the website would be helpful.
“I haven’t ever used the site, and I don’t know if I ever would, but it’s a good idea.”