Unhappy Valley: Students vs. Landlords
The reality of housing: Supply and demand
There are more than 40,000 undergraduate students at Penn State’s University Park campus. Only freshmen are guaranteed housing.
Approximately 8,600 freshmen enrolled at Penn State this fall. That means this year alone, roughly 60% of all on-campus housing was allocated to the Class of 2020. The remaining 32,000+ students who didn’t make the cut have one option—off-campus housing. State College landlords have housing and students need it.
Some of the housing is provided by homeowners seeking to rent space out to college students. Most rentals, however, are run by larger corporations such as Associated Realty Property Management (ARPM) and Continental Real Estate Management.
Three hundred fifty-eight Penn State students responded to a survey about student housing and their experience with their landlord. They were asked things like, “Are you happy with your property management?” and “What kind of issues have you experienced?”
The answers were eye-opening. Many students complained about “low quality living space” and “poor management.” They shared these experiences:
- “My apartment was full of mold when we moved in and they just told us to cover it up.”
- “The pink carpet was clearly never cleaned, there was a bloody handprint on the wall, and cigarette burns in the carpet and kitchen countertops.”
- “They constantly hit us for ridiculous fees, while meanwhile, everything in my apartment is falling apart.”
Rhonda Johannesen has worked across the U.S. as a salesperson, and project and property manager for companies building student housing, including residence halls, apartments and townhomes.
Johannesen says if students feel like they’re not being listened to, they should “find out who the area or regional manager is … and follow that until somebody will help you.”
Most importantly, Johannesen says, “You don’t want to do anything that puts you as a student—resident—in default of the lease.”
Don't be a hothead
Johannesen says that where most students go wrong is stopping rent payments. After feeling like their landlord is not holding up their end of the lease, students sometimes feel they themselves don’t need to maintain their part. Johannesen says that will only increase the size of the issue.
“So many problems are resolvable by just sitting down and having an adult conversation” Johannesen said. “Not an email, not a phone call, but asking somebody for help. A lot of times you’ll get that help.”
Some students say they feel that isn’t possible.
One survey respondent said, “Management does not treat tenants courteously and uses monopoly over apartment buildings to trap students into dealing with them.”
The landlord's responsibility
As a former property manager herself, Johannesen says, “the landlord owes it to [students] to honor the terms of the lease, and to act upon problems expeditiously.”
Unfortunately, not all property management acts this way, and some have gone to court because of it. Rodney Hendricks, owner of Hendricks Investments, was recently “accused of charging ‘improper’ administrative fees and fines to his tenants,” according to a report in the Centre Daily Times.
Many of the survey respondents mentioned having this issue with their landlords as well:
- “I didn't get any of my security deposit back and was charged $150 for excessive fees - painting, carpet cleaning.”
- “Forced to pay carpet cleaning fee with all laminate flooring.”
- For one student, getting a lawyer involved was the only way to get their issue solved:
- “It took my dad emailing them and CC'ing our attorney to have action taken to fix our dryer.”
Going to court
Penn State Student Legal Services is available for students who need help maneuvering their way through the court system. Kelly Mroz, Director of Student Legal Services, says, “We’re an important part of helping students be on an even playing field with corporate landlords that have resources that students may not.”
Mroz says students come into the office with landlord issues quite regularly. One of the concerns her office addresses is whether or not the tenant should receive their security deposit back.
Survey respondents expressed the same concern:
- “They deduct money from my security deposit to fulfill the needs of the new tenant even though I left the place spotless. There was nothing to fix and they took nearly all of my deposit.”
- “Maintenance never addressed any problems then deducted from the security deposit despite proof of maintenance requests.”
- “they purposely give us crap apartments then take our deposits at the end to fix stuff that was already broken.”
- “[The apartment] was dirty and many things were broken, yet they took those things out of our security deposit.”
For the most part, according to Mroz, students are unable to get out of a lease once it has been signed because leases have minimal protection for the tenant. There is, however, one legal principle that tenants should know about.
“The law automatically provides an implied warranty of habitability inside the lease. So even if [landlords] don’t write it in, it’s automatically there under Pennsylvania law,” Mroz said.
Although students have the option to litigate with the help of Student Legal Services, Johannesen says there are steps student renters can take in order to avoid having issues with their management.
SHOP AROUND: Don’t sign a lease for the first apartment you find. Understand the differences between the properties.
READ THE LEASE: Look for add-on fees, service costs and how management deals with tenant issues.
ASK QUESTIONS: Having a thorough understanding of the lease before signing can help you understand what to do later, and keep the burden of solving problems manageable.
Terry Ford, President of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), said he thinks students are pressed for time when choosing an apartment. That leaves little to no time to thoroughly read through the lease.
“Our vulnerabilities are in many ways self-created. At the same time, I do think some of the landlords have seen that and know how to use that to their advantage,” Ford said. “Because of the way it works, there’s an indirect form of students being taken advantage of.”
Behind the Scenes: Data Methods
After experiencing my share of problematic living conditions, I asked other students and discovered they have similiar experiences-- constant HVAC failure, broken light fixtures, leaks, etc. I decided to investigate whether students are taken advantage of by State College landlords.
After using Google Forms to complete a survey, I sent it out to Penn State students via various social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The Centre County Report and The Daily Collegian tweeted out the survey link, and I posted it to the Facebook group “Penn State Class of 2017.” Several of my peers also shared the survey through their own personal Twitter, Facebook and GroupMe accounts. Multimedia journalism students answered the survey as well.
Since this sample was not random, this data is not scientifical. I decided to use this data to make visualizations, however, since it depicts student opinions and concerns about their housing. After compiling all of the data on Google Sheets, I made a pivot table and started looking for outliers, but to no avail.
Reading the Data
I uploaded the data to Tableau, which automated charts for me once I placed “Where do you live?” in rows and “Do you feel the landlord is taking advantage of you?” in columns. I realized that despite the amount of students who complained about their property management, a majority said they did not feel their landlord takes advantage of them.
But for those who did complain, they were emphatically unhappy. I wanted to make sure to share this visualization because it communicates both the general satisfaction of most students, and the fringe of strong dissatisfaction expressed by the students who said they have serious issues with their landlords.
The only regret I have is not being able to include more visual documentation of those serious issues because the students were actively suing their landlords and couldn't share any details of their case.
There are approximately 40,000 undergraduate students alone, and freshman are the only students guaranteed housing. The remaining 6,000 spots are handed out to upperclassmen and graduate students, which leaves over 32,000 students without housing. State College landlords have housing, and students need it-- so the purpose of my story was to investigate whether or not landlords take advantage of that and mistreat their tenants.
The good news is, most students living off-campus are not having a negative experience. However, when it is bad, it can involve serious issues.