Experts highlight rights of student renters off campus


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Photo by Smaranda Tolosano |

Judy Shaw, a senior research specialist at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, tells students about lead safety in their off-campus rental housing. Houses built before 1978 may contain lead paint, which is hazardous to students’ health.


With so many students currently in the process of apartment hunting, the New Brunswick Renters’ Union held a meeting on Friday in the Douglass Campus Center to educate students about living off-campus.

Some students living off-campus do not know their rights as tenants and can find themselves in costly or dangerous situations.

Donald Heilman, director of Student Legal Services, said students living off campus must know the legal services available to them.

“If I could wrap everything up in one phrase [it would be] ‘you’re moving off campus, protect yourself as a tenant,’” he said.

Heilman said a student should have an attorney review his or her lease before signing it.

“This is a preemptive strike to a bazillion headaches. How many [students] have signed a $60,000 contract before? That’s what you’re doing when you sign a lease,” he said.

Student Legal Services allows an attorney to review students’ leases for a fee — $25 for each student involved in the contract, Heilman said.

He said leases often favor the landlord and students must understand what they are on the hook for, especially in terms of paying the rent. As long as it is clearly stated, renters are only responsible for their portion of the rent.

“When you sign a lease, unless there’s language specifically cutting it out, which an attorney might be able to negotiate for you, you’re signing for the whole sum,” Heilman said.

Often times renters fail to pay their sum of the rent, he said, and the rest of the tenants living on the property must make up this difference.

Heilman said one important reason for a lease review is to see if a tenant needs to purchase renters insurance. This is necessary because a landlord is not responsible for a tenant’s personal property that is damaged or stolen.

Renters must trust their instincts and be cautious before signing a lease, Heilman said.

“All of you have an internal check: the gut check, the smell check ...  my advice is — know a good deal, know a good property, know a good landlord when you see it, smell it, taste it.”

Heilman said students must also consider whether living off campus suits their lifestyles.

“Your grades suffer, your career choices suffer, it’s miserable, so please consider the loss of services you get off campus so you can have your eyes opened,” he said.

But Jan Deguzman, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said moving off campus has not changed his studying habits.

“The only problem with on campus is the fact that you’ll be surrounded by so many other people, but living off campus can have the same issues,” he said. “In both cases when I lived on campus or off campus I went somewhere else to study.”

Bill Rementer, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said living off campus tends to distract him from studying.

“I get kind of claustrophobic if I’m in my room too long. I get distracted more easily because there’s more things to do at my house so I either go to the library or computer lab to study,” he said.

Charlie Kratovil, a University alumnus and New Brunswick community organizer, said renters must know the laws surrounding their security deposit.

Landlords often use security deposits as leverage, said Kratovil, a New Brunswick resident. Renters should know that money from a security deposit should be in an interest bearing account that tenants can access. Landlords may not spend the security deposit money, he said.

When landlords do not tell tenants how to access their deposit, tenants can use the money to pay for their rent, he said. Landlords must give the tenants back the security deposit within 30 days of the lease’s end or tenants are entitled to receive double the amount of the security deposit.

“A lot of people expect their money back and only get a small fraction of it or just never hear from the landlord again,” Kratovil said. “You really want to protect yourself from that.”

Deguzman said he has not experienced any issues with his landlord.

“My landlord’s pretty nice, he acts more as a peer. I don’t really have any problems with him,” he said. “He always checks up on us.”

But Justin Levatino, a School of Engineering senior, said his landlord from last year misused his security deposit.

“Last year I lost half of it, and half of the stuff that [my landlord] deduced off of us was preexisting,” he said. “He said there was graffiti in the basement but we came with it there.”

Kratovil said tenants must manage and maintain a positive relationship with their landlord and be upfront about any issues.

“It’s somebody you’re going to have to deal with every time there’s a maintenance issue ...  an emergency or a crime or some problem happens on the property” he said.

“It’s also the person you’re going to have to deal with usually once a month to pay the bill.”

Getting involved in the city’s government can help tenants learn about their rights and future issues they may face, Kratovil said. He advises tenants to attend rent control board and city planning board meetings.

Judy Shaw, a senior research specialist at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said students must also consider a property’s environment in terms of personal health.

Shaw said tenants should know when their property’s year of construction was to avoid risks of lead exposure.

“Before 1978, you could paint with lead paints and now you can’t,” she said. “So any building that was before 1978 runs the possibly of having lead based paints in the walls of the house.”

Shaw said tenants could avoid the risk of lung cancer by asking their landlord about the area’s radon situation.

“The thing that’s so unusual about radon is your [neighbor’s] house could be fine and you’re living right next door and your house is not. It’s that random,” she said.

Shaw said changing personal behaviors could also minimize health risks.

“We’re looking at the physical house, but we’re also looking at the behaviors and interaction between the house and the people,” she said.

Overuse of cleaning supplies, pets, mold spores and air fresheners all can correlate with respiratory issues, Shaw said.

Understanding fire drills and having emergency numbers posted are also preventative measures that a tenant must consider.

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