Off-campus housing faces criticism
Broken windows, leaky ceilings, and winterizing instructions are the common ground for dialogue between off-campus housing landlords and their student tenants. By failing to be a part of this dialogue, landlords can turn ground for responsible action into bases for blameworthiness.
When a fire on September 20 engulfed a student apartment on the University of Minnesota campus, awareness of student-housing landlords' negligence emerged. U of M and Minneapolis city officials initially condemned the scorched house's landlord for renting unsafe housing.
Eventually though, investigators ruled out electrical malfunction or water heater problems as causes of the fire-leaving the landlord with no culpability for the duplex's fire.
Nonetheless, in many college towns, landlords are scrutinized for providing poor maintenance and allowing their property to decay while continuing to increase their rent. Political power of college-town landlords-due to a steady demand for student housing-and lack of time, energy, and savvy among some students allows landlords to get away with renting substandard housing.
At Bowdoin, about ten percent of students, predominantly seniors, live in privately-owned housing, and are susceptible to this type of mistreatment and potentially unsafe housing. While 1700 students live in Brunswick, Bowdoin is certainly not analogous to 40,000-student University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Bowdoin students' housing norms are very different from those of University of Minnesota students, but Bowdoin students deal with many parallel issues of landlord negligence.
Patrick Woodcock '03, a resident of an apartment above Bull Moose Music store said his apartment has "a broken window which has not been repaired since the beginning of school."
Similarly, Alicia Smith '04 explained the condition of her off-campus house upon move-in: "We had doors that wouldn't close or lock, but we made our landlord fix them. We also had bathroom doors that locked you inside."
Maine Law gives tenants an "implied warranty of habitability" which means that landlords must promise their property is safe and fit to live in. While nonfunctioning doors and broken windows seem to qualify as unfit living conditions, the most significant problems relate to the safety of off-campus apartments and houses.
An unambiguous rule related to tenants' "implied warranty of habitability" says "all apartments must have smoke alarms in or near bedrooms. This rule also applies to single-family homes built or renovated after 1981. In apartment buildings with more than three stories, all hallways must have alarms."
Evidently, at least one student residency's landlord has violated this rule: Smith said, "[we] only [have smoke alarms] because one of the parents [of a student living in the house] went out and bought new detectors for the house."
Issues have also arisen concerning communication with landlords. Woodcock said, "if there are any complaints from the manager [of Bull Moose] down stairs they don't really discuss the issue with us, but rather send us a letter threatening eviction."
While Smith and Woodcock have found aspects of their living situations less than satisfactory, that is not the case for many students living off-campus. Indeed, many Bowdoin students have had positive interactions with their landlords.
Jane Cullina '04 said, "Our house was immaculate when we moved in, and we were really happy about that. The heat and electricity have worked just fine."
Cullina's housemate, Kristen Dummer said their landlord fixed things promptly: "A few weeks ago the water just started gushing in during a really heavy storm. Thankfully, after a few attempts, our landlord fixed the roof and it's been fine since."
Likewise, Kazia Jankowski '04 has found her landlord "very helpful and very approachable." Jankowski said her landlord has even gone out of her way to help her and her housemates: "She wrote all of us a winterizing email with tips about how to keep the house warm, including a neighbor to contact in the case we had trouble starting a fire in the wood stove."
Jankowski's house mate Alex Harris '04 spoke to the house's safe conditions and their landlord's concern: "Our landlord has put fire extinguishers all around the house. She told us she is concerned about our safety."
In the case, however, that landlords are not responsive or are providing unsafe housing, Jeff Hutchinson, Director of Codes Enforcement for the Town of Brunswick, said there are steps tenants must take: If the landlord has not been responsive to a verbal request, make the request again, in writing. Then, Hutchinson said, "if [tenants] are still not getting what they are entitled from their landlord, I highly recommend they give me a call."
Hutchinson said the Brunswick Department of Housing Inspections does not make explicit efforts protect student renters. "We rely on complaints, and we don't receive many complaints. I think most landlords in Brunswick are in compliance with housing codes and responsive to their tenants," Hutchison said.
When asked if Bowdoin did anything to ensure the safety of students living off campus, Director of Residential Life, Bob Graves said, "We don't get into approving off-campus landlords." Because Bowdoin is small, he said, he does know about a lot of students' experiences with landlords, "through word of mouth." Graves said, "I can offer advice, but it is more on a one-on-one basis."
To learn more about your tenant rights, or to file a complaint with the Brunswick Housing Inspections Office, call 725-6651.