Don’t sign that lease

By Justin Doran

You have just about settled into your new digs and almost immediately the pressure to sign another lease is overwhelming. Sometimes it comes in the dire “renewal” letter, in which your landlord describes the hordes of prospective lessees who will invade your apartment in the dead of the late morning unless you agree to another year of legally binding residency. Your friends confirm these dread accounts by bringing you along on awkward apartment “tours,” in which you’re just as likely to get a “tour” of someone’s bong collection. Well, before you get dragged into an ill-conceived commitment, there is something you really ought to know.

All landlords are not created equal. Unfortunately, when students make housing decisions they are weighed down by two counterproductive beliefs: that they will be treated fairly and that bad lessors can’t stay in business for very long. Before you dismiss these as na’ve, ask yourself honestly: Have I researched my landlord?

The best way to do this is to make your way to Room 324 in the Illini Union, the office of the Tenant Union. In this room you will find a group of staff and students who struggle daily against the nefarious forces of lessor (and greater) injustice. The commander of these brave souls is Esther Patt, a ferocious defender of tenant rights. “If students would just come into the Tenant Union before they sign their lease, they would have a lot less problems.” In fact, of the roughly 40,000 students that attended the University last year (many of whom will seek the services of a private lessor) only 6,692 students used the service. Furthermore, Patt laments, “A lot of people only care after they’ve had a bad experience.” And even through her sincere concern for students, a visceral frustration at student apathy is evident, and for good reason.

Bad lessors stay in business year after year, despite a consistently high number of complaints. I suggested that a possible reason for this was the absence of landlord complaints from the Tenant Union Web site. Esther explained to me that one reason for this is because she fears students will misinterpret the data. Now, it’s not that she wants students to disregard negative reports; it’s just the opposite.

Certain landlords will tell you that they have a high number of complaints only because they rent a large number of properties. Let’s investigate this claim: two of the largest lessors, Bankier Apartments and Roland Realty, have a combined total of one complaint during the past five years. Two other lessors of very similar size, The University Group and Campus Property Management, have 65 and 80 complaints, respectively, during the same period of time. Hypothesis destroyed. Furthermore, these complaints are not all just finicky tenants not getting their blinds repaired. Some of these complaints involve serious legal questions.

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Patt’s strategy is to get students to come in so that she can personally dismantle misconceptions like these. Judging by the success of companies like The University Group, the Tenant Union desperately needs reinforcements. To this end, I strongly encourage students to write to Dean of Students William Riley ([email protected]), requesting that he redouble his efforts to get Tenant Union information out to students. This especially includes publication of all landlord complaints on the Tenant Union Web site. Widespread dispersal of this information is the only way to keep bad landlords out of business.

When I discussed this issue with my current landlord, Weiss Lancaster of the Electrum Group, he told me something very heartening, “Too often landlords fail to recognize the value of a good tenant. Really, they’re worth their weight in gold. They will respect your property, pay rent on time and be pleasant to deal with. What is important to me, and why I work so hard to keep a good reputation, is that I want to attract good tenants. Those tend to be tenants who take the time to go down to the Tenant Union.” The Electrum Group has had no complaints in the past five years.