What is the proper role for the University with regard to its
role in influencing or contributing to the off-campus student
housing environment? The Michigan Daily has been editorializing on
this topic for many years, as has the Ann Arbor News. It is
probably safe to say that there still remains no clear consensus on
how that role should be defined, but we can offer some summary and
insights as to how the University has offered support to its
students, as well as identify a new effort recently underway.

The University houses about 30 percent of the student body
(undergraduate and graduate) in on-campus residence halls and
apartments; this percentage has stayed consistent since the early
1970s. The availability of on-campus housing will not change
substantially in the foreseeable future, even with the recently
announced plans for a new residence hall. Consequently, off-campus
housing will remain a significant component of University student
life both because of the limited amount of on-campus housing and
because so many students desire the opportunity to move off-campus
and live more independently.

The Division of Student Affairs provides supports to students
living off-campus in two significant areas: the Off-Campus Housing
Program and Student Legal Services.

The Off-Campus Housing Program, part of the Housing Information
Office, has been providing assistance and support to the off-campus
student population for more than 30 years, one of the oldest
programs of its kind in the United States. Its mission is to
encourage and help students to find and maintain a living
environment conducive and complimentary to their academic
experience. More than 500 landlords and property managers are
registered with the program, which requires them to use either a
Housing-approved lease or a functional equivalent and to agree to
participate in landlord-tenant dispute resolution before resorting
to litigation in the courts. In addition, the program offers a
large array of publications and handouts utilized by thousands of
University students each year. It sponsors a housing fair
(scheduled for Monday) that gives students an opportunity to meet
with dozens of property managers and comparatively shop for
off-campus housing that best meets their needs.

The staff of the Off-Campus Housing Program sees many hundreds
of students annually, providing one-on-one advice to conducting
roommate -matching sessions in August. Its professionally trained
mediator conducts more than a 100 landlord-tenant mediations a
year, many of which result in negotiated agreements between the
parties that saves them from going to court and expensive
litigation. The University is one of fewer than five U.S. campuses
that offer this kind of conflict resolution service.

Student Legal Services provides legal advice and representation
to students involved in landlord-tenant disputes. Funded through
student fees, there are no additional charges for consultation with
attorneys. The four attorneys on the SLS staff can also assist
students in avoiding contentious relations with landlords by
providing advice and guidance in advance of signing binding
leases.

SLS and the OCH frequently collaborate to keep landlord-student
tenant situations from escalating from conflict to litigation. Both
SLS and the Off-Campus Housing Program have very knowledgeable
staff readily available to students with regard to their rights and
responsibilities as a tenant, making good decisions prior to
signing any lease agreement, as well as advice and guidance once
they experience difficulties either with their landlord or, as is
frequently the case, with another student-tenant. It is the case,
as both the Daily and the Michigan Student Assembly have argued,
that neither entity plays the same primary advocacy role for
student-tenants as did the Ann Arbor Tenants Union until it stopped
providing service for students in 2003. But the AATU, for a variety
of reasons, had not been effective for students for a number of
years prior to the cessation of its availability to students.

About a year ago, the Office of Community Affairs, University
Housing and Student Affairs began an initiative to bring together
on a regular basis historically adversarial groups or groups that
worked hard not to have face-to-face conversations with one
another. This initiative, Campus Neighbors, involves
representatives from students, (primarily MSA representatives
involved in housing-related commissions), landlords and property
managers, University administrators, City Council members, City of
Ann Arbor staff, neighborhood associations and off-campus group
housing (Inter-cooperative Council co-ops, fraternities and
sororities). Campus Neighbors meets once a month and has averaged
40 to 50 participants at every meeting with some representation
from each of the constituent groups. We have spent the past year
framing the most critical agendas regarding off-campus housing,
having each group articulate its perspectives on these issues and
taking initial steps at working collaboratively.

Our goal for this academic year is to move to the next level by
collaborating more substantively on developing long-term strategies
and practices to better deal with several of our identified
critical issues. Specifically, we hope to address ways to moderate
and curtail the pressures of early leasing, which negatively
impinge on both students and landlords in ways that are not always
readily apparent or appreciated.

The University actually provides more direct service to the
off-campus student population than almost all of its peer
institutions around the country. Is it enough or the right kind of
service or support? The answer is very much in the eyes of the
beholder, but the Campus Neighbors discussions are helping to shape
new ways in which the University can constructively work with
students, the city and the private sector in improving student
neighborhoods. While there are some limitations as to how far the
University can or should go to affect the activities of the private
sector, we certainly have a strong interest in the quality of
off-campus environments because of the impact they have on
town-gown relations at the broader level as well as on the ability
of University students to live in a setting that facilitates their
academic success and personal growth.

 

NOTE: If you are interested in participating in the Campus
Neighbors discussions, send an e-mail to
“mailto:housing@umich.edu”>housing@umich.edu, and we’ll
add your name to the e-mail group to receive notices about future
meetings.

 

Levy is the University Housing spokesman.

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