Living Off Campus
Student housing can leave a lot to be desired-but few tenants know where to turn.
by Jena Brooker
From the March, 2020 issue
Green and white paint is peeling off the home where Jordan Anderson lived during his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. Anderson gestures towards the front porch, where a single piece of white string is holding up a wooden railing at the top of the steps. As he puts weight on it, it rocks back and forth. Although he and his housemates paid $725-$850 each in the 2017-18 school year, he says, they encountered many problems in their home--drains that clogged repeatedly; dirty walls, carpets, and furniture; mold; windows and doors that would not close; insects inside the house, and no hot water for a month.
"It was a really rough year," Anderson says. "Emotionally it was so tolling to know that I began and ended every day in a place that just made me feel gross."
Many U-M students live in old, poorly maintained housing. Gayle Rosen, an attorney for U-M Student Legal Services, represents students in disputes with landlords and rental companies. "We probably get 300-350 cases a year," she says. "I'd say five to ten percent turn into legal action."
In recent years, mold is increasingly an issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to indoor mold can cause lung infections and symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, nasal congestion, and skin, throat, and eye irritation. In addition to mold, students visit Student Legal Services with complaints that range from collapsed floors and insufficient heating to bad locks, burst pipes, fleas, and mice.
Most U-M students live off-campus--about 30,000 currently, according to Beyond the Diag, a U-M program that provides resources for off-campus housing. The university's way of dealing with them is typical.
A 2017 article on insidehighered.com calls off-campus housing "The Neglected Stepchild of University Life." "As students flooded the local housing markets," wrote Kate Rousmaniere, a professor at Miami University and mayor of Oxford, Ohio, "universities developed a tricky dance of claiming that off-campus housing
was not their responsibility, even if they provided recommendations and guidance for housing rentals through small off-campus housing offices."
In a survey conducted by the U-M's Central Student Government for the 2018-19 school year, students reported paying an average rent of $806 a month. Yet only 57 percent of respondents said they were "satisfied with the overall condition of my property." Almost half, 46 percent, said their rental property needed repairs when they moved in.
One student interviewed says severe mold in his apartment caused headaches, nosebleeds, night sweats, and a throat that felt like it was on fire. "One time I almost had my wife take me to the E.R., it was that bad," he says. He is seeking restitution for almost $10,000 in expenses and asked not to be named because the litigation is ongoing.
U-M public health prof Stuart Batterman researches indoor air pollution and its potential health impacts, including coughing, asthma attacks, and long-term effects like cancer and cardiovascular disease. "Some of these are not confirmed, but the evidence is increasingly strong that even relatively low levels of pollution can cause these kinds of problems," Batterman says, adding that mold and older homes without air filtration systems can worsen the effects.
A particularly insidious form of indoor air pollution is radon. According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, more than one-third of homes in the county exceed 4.0 picocuries of radiation per liter of air--the level at which the EPA recommends abatement. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer, but, because it is odorless and colorless, testing is the only way to know if the air in a home is dangerous.
The state building code and the Ann Arbor Rental Housing Ordinance require all new homes, and all basements newly converted to living spaces, to be prepared for installation of a radon mitigation system if testing finds it's necessary. Additionally, landlords must provide a radon test to the city proving levels are under 4.0. But testing is required only once, when a property is initially approved as a rental. The EPA recommends retesting every five years, or every two years if a previous inspection found actionable levels.
Though the city inspects rental units for physical problems, it defers to the Washtenaw County Health Department on environmental hazards such as radon and mold. Unlike the city, though, the county doesn't proactively look for problems; it learns about them only if someone complains. County environmental health director Kristen Schweighoefer says that her department receives around 150 complaints a year from the entire county. "The majority of our complaints are mold and bedbugs," she says, but they also hear about water and sewage issues, mosquitoes, garbage, and general unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
Even when someone complains, Schweighoefer says, "we do not do inspections." Instead, her office acts as a mediator between tenants and landlords to resolve the issue. If there is a positive mold test, however, the tenant can go back to the city to make a complaint, which will then go through the city's complaint and enforcement process.
Rosen of U-M Student Legal Services describes a case where a tenant reported mold growing on her clothes in a closet, which ultimately spread throughout the property, forcing the tenant to relocate for several months while it was remediated. When the landlord refused to compensate her, she withheld part of her rent. The landlord moved to evict her then amended the complaint "to include a claim against the tenant for their damages (the cost to remediate the apartment)," Rosen emails. The landlord eventually dropped the case, but only "[a]fter several months of discovery and motions, and with only a few weeks before the trial."
In his Lawrence St. rental, Anderson says, he dealt with broken doors and windows that would not fully close. The most benign effect was the constant presence of stink bugs in the house. The more severe consequences were break-ins. He says that an abusive ex-boyfriend of one of the residents climbed through different windows multiple times. Anderson and his housemates asked their landlords, Chen and Charles Hsieh, to fix the windows repeatedly, he says, but they never did. (The Hsiehs did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Anderson's father, a landlord in Minneapolis-St. Paul, told him that he'd noticed many code violations in the house while moving him in. He recommended that Anderson not pursue legal action, however, because of how stressful the process would be. Instead, Anderson says, he and his housemates just dealt with it.
The city's Rental Housing Services administrative coordinator Zachary Smith emails that "tenants who feel their unit is not being properly maintained may (and are encouraged to) file a complaint with the city, who will pursue, via contact with the landlord, resolution of any existing code violations." In 2018, Smith says, his office received thirty-three new complaints regarding housing code enforcement. In every case, he says, landlords made all ordered repairs, and none resulted in removal of a rental permit.
The city is supposed to inspect all rental units every two years. But Rental Housing Services was unable to provide systematic data on how many inspections are performed, what issues are found, or how they are resolved. Nor does the office track the outcomes of tenant complaints, such as how often landlords are fined. Complaints are viewable only by a city employee opening up each housing record. The city plans to have a new system that will better track housing inspections, complaints, and violations within the next year or two.
A later resident of 503 Lawrence did file a formal complaint with the city. The woman, who asked not to be identified, says the day she moved in last fall, she emailed the Hsiehs with a list of issues. "They just treated any criticisms as a personal indictment of them, and they treated any attempt to fix the code violations as actually successfully fixing it," she says. Doubting that she "would have a positive tenant-landlord relationship with them," she moved out three days later and filed a complaint that echoed Anderson's concerns: windows without working locks, unclean conditions, and an unstable front porch railing.
A review of past city inspection reports for 503 Lawrence shows the railing was reported as a violation during a routine inspection in 2010 and fixed. Housing inspector Brandon Boggs says that inspections only offer a "snapshot," and problems can recur between inspections. Boggs inspected the house two weeks after the complaint was filed and says most of the issues he found were fixed by the end of the day. On a recent visit the string was gone--the rail still wobbled.
Anderson says many of his and his housemates' complaints were never resolved, including requests for new carpets, better doors and windows, new furniture, a repaint, and garbage disposals to fix a recurring problem of backed-up sinks. But those issues were not clear code violations. According to Boggs, unless the state of the house is going to attract rodents or pests, the city can only advise landlords to address their tenants' complaints about cleanliness.
Some landlords say the tenants are at fault. Tyler Nichols, manager of Ann Arbor Apartments, says the number-one issue he sees is backed-up toilets and sinks. "Almost unilaterally that's a tenant-created problem where you're putting down things that you shouldn't." To combat this, they give each new resident a guide with tips for living there, including what you should and shouldn't put down the drain. According to Nichols, Ann Arbor Apartments has not had issues with more serious concerns, such as mold.
As the semester went on, Anderson and his housemates wished they had pursued legal action. Reflecting on why they didn't, Anderson says, "We are so small. They have money. We don't have money. We don't actually know what we're doing. We just know that everything around us should not be like this."
When the lease was up, they moved out. And other students moved in.
From the April 2020 Ann Arbor Observer
An Apology to the Hsiehs
Our March article "Living Off Campus" included tenants' complaints about a rental house at 503 Lawrence. We regret that the article did not include comments from the property's owners, Charles and Chen Hsieh.
"You damaged us without having our side of the story," Chen Hsieh said in a meeting. She felt they should have been given more time to respond.
When Jena Brooker wrote the article for a U-M journalism class, she repeatedly emailed the address posted on the building without response. As the expanded Observer version approached publication, she emailed again and sent a letter by U.S. mail.
But, Chen Hsieh explained, the email address was dormant, and by the time the letter arrived they had only a couple of days to respond before the Observer's deadline.
Because she could see the letter was from a business, Hsieh said, "I thought it was an ad." She set it aside for a few days, and by the time she opened it, the issue had already been printed.
We wish we had reached them in time to include the Hsiehs' perspective, particularly on issues of responsiveness and security.
"We respond to tenant needs and requests within hours," Hsieh said. "We try very hard to keep the house safe."
The article noted that in the 2017-2018 school year, "an abusive ex-boyfriend of one of the residents climbed through different windows multiple times." But, Hsieh said, they were not told about the break-ins. If they had, "we would have rushed there--even [at] midnight."
"Chen is correct," said Jordan Anderson, the tenant we'd interviewed. The Hsiehs, he said, "didn't know about this guy." The resident "was the one dealing with that, and I didn't want to say anything she didn't want me to say."
Anderson and his housemates also corrected a statement that they went for a month without hot water. There was never a time with no hot water, they agreed, but with six residents, there was a chronic problem with showers running cold. Hsieh said they were notified about the issue by email on November 27. After four attempts to fix the water heater, her husband bought a new one on December 2.
Hsieh also asked for details of the "many" code violations the article said Anderson's father noticed during the August move-in. As Anderson recalled it recently, the only clear violation was a wobbly porch railing. His father also commented on housekeeping issues, but, Hsieh noted, those were the tenants' responsibility--their lease started in May.
Hsieh said the house has consistently passed city inspections for more than four decades. But tenants tend to confuse normal wear and tear with code violations, she said, and some abuse the house.
As for the porch railing, she said, "the kids sit on it [and] enjoy rocking on it." She added that her husband checks it whenever he goes to the house and has fixed it repeatedly.
"We have been very sympathetic and caring for tenants who are struggling financially," Hsieh said. "We usually let them pay whenever they are ready without adding a late charge."
Hsieh believes the tenant who filed a complaint with the city last fall just wanted "an excuse to move out." When the tenant asked for an immediate cleaning, Hsieh said, her husband rushed to the house and cleaned it himself "in order to make peace." When they went to collect her security deposit, however, she had moved out. As the article noted, code violations found in a subsequent city inspection were promptly corrected.
Hsieh shared her husband's summary of maintenance issues when Anderson's group was there. "We took care of every complaint immediately," she said.
Hsieh said the article was "irresponsible and sensational," for example by saying that members of Anderson's group considered "legal action" without saying what kind. Asked for specifics, Anderson responded that they "had no idea what legal options were available."
The criticisms were particularly painful, Hsieh said, because "we are very responsible and caring people. As parents ourselves, we feel for the parents of our tenants who are far away from them."
We sincerely regret that we weren't able to include the Hsiehs' comments in the article and appreciate the chance to do so now.
[Originally published in March, 2020.]
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