What I learned trying to improve off-campus homes
THE SANTA CLARA
September 24, 2015
At almost every college, sleazy landlords lease properties that only college students would stoop to inhabit. Cuz capitalism. A close-to-campus house is a sought after commodity with many suitors. So, these houses get chopped up to fit as many people as possible, and then deteriorate because upkeep is irrelevant when there’s a horde of folks ready to fling fistfuls of cash to live in a fetid home. Location, location, location.
Students are easy marks. They’re busy, gullible, well-financed renters who rarely review leases, hesitate to haggle over charges and want to live with their friends so badly that they’ll endure squalor for a year. They require little labor for landlords to make ludicrous profits and are near graduation by the time they realize they’ve been had.
Last year, I created a viral campaign for Internet Culture, a thoroughly modern English class taught by the terrific Professor Julia Voss. After months of listening to my friend Dave complain about his house, I recorded his lucid complaints about the sub-code structural features of his house.
My project focused on his story and the stories of two other students: one who endured a house fire that claimed all his possessions and another living in Gravity, which was a stinky, caving-in house on Bellomy street with amenities like wobbly walls, holes in the ceiling partially covered by a nailed board and a space heater in their unsealed kitchen as the extent of their air conditioning.
Now obviously, not every landlord is as awful as this, but my brief research made it clear that there are more than a few wormy apples in the bunch.
Over 1,000 people, including University President Father Michael Engh S.J. and many of the area’s landlords, watched my video. Over 200 people signed the petition. Lawyers and realtors and knowledgeable alumni threw their support behind the cause. I got giddy that I might actually change something for the better, albeit the living conditions for private-schoolers in a 300-days-of-sun-a-year climate. But still.
The video/petition earned Dave and I a meeting with a school administrators, but as the talks went on, my optimism ran out. Santa Clara is surprisingly impotent to change the housing conditions outside of the campus loop. Though the university runs some properties, they don’t have control over what other landlords do and these scroogian owners can keep their property in whatever condition they see fit, especially if students will fork over the agreed-upon dough at the end of each month. My efforts felt about as effective as a child penning a letter to Santa without telling his parents. It hurt to realize that things wouldn’t get better just because I wanted them to.
The video is no longer on Youtube because a landlord hinted he might sue me, and I have given up my vague quest to “Improve Off-Campus Housing” because in a year, this won’t be a personal problem. And that’s selfish and uninspiring, but honest.
Still my efforts weren’t entirely in vain. When I returned to school this year, I stopped by Gravity where new resident, Griffin Cook, told me his house is receiving a long list of upgrades, and tellingly there was a work crew buzzing away as we spoke briefly.
If you live off campus, you don’t have to live in poor conditions, but you do have to act. First, contact Callie Rimpfel (firstname.lastname@example.org). She is the Off-Campus Area Coordinator, a new position this year, and she has a staff of three Neighborhood Ambassadors aiming to ensure that students don’t get exploited by unscrupulous landlords and have decent relationships with their neighbors.
“No one thinks that a landlord might take advantage of them, or that their property isn’t going to be perfect when they show up,” Rimpfel said. “I’m not going to step in and do (your work) for you, but I can take you through the process.”
For first-time renters, Rimpfel recommends making a thorough search of the house and documenting all the preexisting defects when the lease begins. Then, develop relationships with landlords, property managers and administrative assistants and know their respective responsibilities so as to guide complaints to the correct person. Finally, if an issue persists for an unreasonable amount of time, she has access to formal grievances that you can file to the city of Santa Clara.
As the year goes on, her department will host an “Adulting 101” course to teach students not only how to negotiate the perils of first-time renting, but also practical skills like cooking and financial literacy. In the fall, when students are signing leases, they can collaboration with the Law Center to help students understand what they are getting into.
“Sometimes, just reading it with someone else is very helpful just so you know the roles and responsibilities of a tenant versus the landlord,” she said. “And if a landlord is expected to do something, you hold them accountable.”
Contact John Flynn at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.