Students share rental problems, seek solution from city

Michael Fox, junior in business administration exposes the bowing foundation, hidden behind cinder blocks on Oct. 15, 2015. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian) Photo credit: Emily Starkey

The SGA unanimously passed a resolution two weeks ago, asking city commissioners to reconsider a rental inspection program in Manhattan to ensure that landlords are keeping their properties safe for tenants.

Rental inspection programs typically work by requiring landlords to allow city officials to inspect their rental properties a certain amount of times per year.

Joe Tinker, student body vice president and senior in psychology, said he supports a new inspection program. Tinker and his roommates said they have had their own bad experience with the landlord of their rental house.

“We noticed some issues,” Tinker said. “The foundation wall’s coming in, the porch is more or less falling. It’s detaching itself from the rest of the house.”

After the issues were brought up to their landlord, Tinker said they eventually had to call Code Services to request an inspection of the property.

“It didn’t seem like we were getting the response that we needed from him,” Tinker said.

Renters’ rights

Requesting an inspection is one of many rights renters have, according to Jessica Wheeler, director of Off-Campus Housing Support and senior in biochemistry.

Last year, her office received more than 150 student complaints about housing, of which 26 percent had to do with poor maintenance issues.

“With all the flooding in May, if the landlord fails to properly dry out houses after that situation, you can get some pretty serious mold,” Wheeler said. “Also, pests. I’ve seen all different things from bats to raccoons in peoples’ apartments.”

Landlords must keep the property “livable and in compliance with all building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety,” according to her office’s website.

Other college towns, such as Lawrence and Wichita, have mandatory rental inspection programs, according to Tinker. In 2009, Manhattan’s City Commission instated its own program, though it was repealed in 2011.

Brad Claussen, building official for Manhattan Code Services, said his office averages about 100-115 inspections per year – but not every inspection results in the finding of a code violation.

“Typically, if (renters) are calling and complaining, normally there’s something that’s legitimate about that we find needs to be corrected,” Claussen said. “Not 100 percent of the time. Once in a while, we do inspections and there aren’t any violations. But then, the rest of the time, there’s something there.”

Claussen said that certain violations are more prevalent than others.

“I know typically electrical problems are high on the list of things we run into,” Claussen said. “More basic things, like lack of smoke detectors and things like that, are pretty common things we’ve run into.”

He said that although inspectors have found these issues, he does not believe the majority of landlords fail to maintain their property.

“I don’t want to make it sound like every time we do an inspection, that we find all these things, because we don’t,” Claussen said. “There’s a lot of good rental units out there as well. I think everybody would agree, there’s a lot of good ones and there’s some bad ones.”

The bad ones

Black, backed-up sewage water clogging the shower is what Allison Sowle, senior in family studies and human services and women’s studies, said she discovered when she moved from an upstairs rental unit in a house to a basement unit.

When she called her landlord about it, she was referred to his daughter, who had become manager of the property during the lease. Sowle was told to use Drano on the shower drain. When service contractors inspected the shower, they discovered that fixing the problem would require weeks of repair and replacing pipes in the bathroom.

“He says it is too expensive to fix,” the landlord’s daughter told Sowle in a text message.

Wheeler said her office has received similar complaints.

“A lot of maintenance issues we see are plumbing related where the landlord needs to do something serious about tree roots or something like that and it’s expensive,” Wheeler said. “Instead of actually fixing the problem, they do a Band-Aid fix where they pour some Drano. This happens particularly in basement apartments.”

Know your rights

According to Kansas state law, landlords must maintain all plumbing, electrical, sanitary, heating and ventilation in the rental property. Wheeler said a lot of students do not know about their rights as tenants, which her office is prepared to help with.

“I think that if more people knew about our office, we would be much busier,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of students that don’t know that we exist and I think that we could be helping a lot more people who do have questions about their rights.”

Wheeler said a lot of students are first-time renters and may not know exactly what rights they have.

“I think a lot of students have this attitude of, ‘Oh, it’s a college house. We expect it to be not as nice,'” Wheeler said. “Your apartment should be safe regardless of how much rent you’re paying. Your landlord knows the rules. They know that they need to make your property safe.”

Tinker said the lack of knowledge about renters’ rights is what spurred him to take action.

“It’s alarming to me, because I know a lot of other students in this situation that don’t know their rights,” Tinker said. “That is, to me, the biggest issue. Landlords are able to get away with poor business practice because their tenants don’t know their rights.”

Tinker said an inspection of the house he rents found more than a dozen code violations.

“Some of them are small; a missing window, the front door had obviously been broken into and there was a chunk of the front door missing,” Tinker said. “So you could easily just slide a credit card in there and pop it open.”

Michael Fox, junior in business administration and Tinker’s roommate, said the most pressing concern was the foundation wall falling in.

“That’s really bad because if you go down and put your face directly against the wall, you can literally see that it’s bowed,” Fox said. “It’s significant enough that you’re like, ‘Should I really be living down here?'”

Fox said that instead of fixing the foundation, their landlord used an alternate solution.

“There are cinder blocks stacked against the side of the house,” Fox said. “They’re not providing any sort of foundation support at all.”

Wheeler said she supports a rental inspection program, because it would lead to less safety issues for students.

“What my office does is deals with problems after they happen,” Wheeler said. “How great would it be if we could prevent those problems from even happening? Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

Sowle ran into other problems with her unit, including standing water in the dishwater and a broken garbage disposal.

“(The landlord) also says that the garbage disposal isn’t the best, so you really just have to pretend it isn’t there,” the landlord’s daughter told Sowle in a text.

Tinker said he thinks a program can be reintroduced, but only if there is enough support behind it.

“This isn’t just being pushed by one entity or organization,” Tinker said. “I think it needs to be an entire community effort.”