Dangerous housing: What to do when options appear limited

Dawit Tilahun

In the midst of the school year, students are starting to have the conversation of where they will live for the next year. Second to paying tuition, for most students, finding housing can either be smooth sailing or utter turmoil.

Finding a property listed at an affordable price with a quality location and nice amenities — although ideal — is not the reality for some students, however. 

For some, the issue may begin with the landlord or owner of the rental property.

“The owner only contacted us when we have to pay rent,” Tim Burroughs, junior in supply chain management, said about the house he lived in last year. what type of property as in house or apartment?

When bothered with a broken toilet, Burroughs was told to “fix it yourself” by his landlord.

Additionally, the property Burroughs had lived in was teeming with problems such as: black mold growing on the wall, water coming through the walls out the carpet and down to the basement, insects living in the carpet and a strong and distinct odor. When did he live here? Last year? Two years ago? Now?

“I got sick there more often than I did living anywhere else,” Burroughs recounts. 

When asked why he chose to live there, Burroughs says the place was cheap and had a good location. Yet, the landlord had never come to do inspections in the entirety of Burroughs stay.

“As far as code regulations, there is not anything that would increase the cost of having a rental-[occupied] property versus an owner-occupied property,” Sara Van Meeteren, building official for the Inspection Division of Ames, said. 

Resources students can use for filtering quality properties prior to signing includes: the city official code, Rent Smart Ames and Student Legal Services.

“We often forward students to Student Legal Services for lease issues,” Meeteren said.

Lease disputes and property management issues make up 25 percent of the traffic Student Legal Services receives according to Michael Levine, attorney at Student Legal Services.

Issues in property management often tend to stem from seasonal changes. For example, students may face flooding or water damage due to holes in the property during the rainy season. Additionally, students may face excessive heat or cold exposure in summer and winter due to a broken A/C system.

“Read the lease [because] it is very important that students understand their responsibilities from the get-go,” says Levine.

Levine also emphasized the potential dangers of subleasing particularly if landlords don’t check the property prior to a sub-leaser’s move-in date.

The danger arises in circumstances where damage was done to the property under the former resident, in which the sub-leaser may be held liable for all damages that occurred under the former tenant.

Students are encouraged to reference the online Renter’s Rules document on Student Legal Services website. can this be hyperlinked?

Additionally, renters can find more information from Chapter 562A of Iowa Code, which is the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Lawhyperlink?

“The number one issue students face with landlords is getting their security deposit back,” Levine said.

Students should also beware of hidden clauses in leases, specifically clauses related to move-out dates.

Levine described the fine print in some contracts that state one must notify landlords X-days prior to move-out, otherwise the lease will be extended another X-days, sometimes even a few months. This clause may cause renters additional payments and delay the reception date of the security deposit.

The key to solving this issue, as Levine often emphasizes, is to read the whole lease.

“You can never be too familiar with your lease,” Levine said.

When describing the characteristics of a poor landlord or those property owners known for poor property management, Levine said that there are not any individual landlords that may cause major problems since different areas face different problems.

This may make it hard for renters to pinpoint the best properties, but Levine urged students to conduct a thorough inspection of a properties facilities prior to signing the lease.

“There’s inspections and then there are inspections,” Levine said.

Students are advised to take the time to thoroughly inspect complexes prior to signing the lease, rather than skimping out on inspecting because they’re worried about inconveniencing the current tenants.

Levine said that it is, however, the students responsibility to return the property at the end of the lease in the same condition it was in on move-in, minus ordinary wear and tear.

This entails that students should properly document the conditions when moving-in with photos, notices to the landlord and inspection reports to avoid any fines that may come the end of the lease.

“Conducting a thorough inspection is an area that I would stress, because it seems like more and more people are finding conditions they did not expect to see when moving in,” Levine said. 

Students can set up a meeting with an attorney by phone at 515-294-0978 or stop by their office in 0367 of the Memorial Union regarding issues they may be facing with their lease.

“We are focused on the law, and how the law can remedy the situation,” Levine said.