When (and how) to settle landlord disputes

By Alice Smelyansky

We get it all the time – whether it’s the old woman who skimps you on tips because you look too fresh-faced, or your employer who makes jokes at your expense, people like to take advantage of you because of your age. But your landlord, who takes quite a hefty sum out of your pocket every month, is not someone who is allowed a free pass.

While some complaints may be nit-picky, there are instances where standing up to your landlord is necessary, if not vital, to uphold livability conditions in your rental space. Landlords can be difficult and downright unreasonable, but there is a way to combat the fake-niceties and flat-out lies. The Tenant Union and Student Legal Services weighed in on how to handle issues that arise while renting an apartment.

WHEN TO COMPLAIN:

Heating problems

When temperatures drop to unfathomable lows, there is no excuse for your apartment not to retain an appropriate level of heat. If the heating system does not work properly, pipes are subject to freezing, which can result in as much as $14,000 in repairs. For Shannon Cleary, senior in Media, insufficient heat is all too familiar.

“Our unit is divided between an upstairs and downstairs space, and while the heating unit works fine to circulate hot air around the upstairs, only cool air comes out of the vents downstairs,” Cleary said. “No matter how high we turn our heat up, the downstairs always suffers from cold air.”

After living in the same unit for two years, Cleary is still experiencing the same problems. Just recently, her landlord decided to install a sealer on the front door. 

“Heat rises is not an excuse for insufficient heating,” said Chris Boidy, housing counselor at the Tenant Union and senior in LAS.

Boidy emphasized that if a student’s landlord does not promptly fix the problem, calling the city housing inspector is the next step to take. From there, the inspector will either deem the apartment livable or unlivable, and if the conditions are such that remaining on the property is impossible, the landlord should adhere to some negotiation about rent until the problem is resolved.  

Broken furniture

If the furniture is listed in the lease, the landlord is bound by the contract and must either repair or replace what is broken. However, too often, students wait for a new refrigerator or desk for months before it makes its appearance in the unit.

“You have to send in a million maintenance requests and call the office phone every day if you have a problem and want it fixed,” Cleary said. “It’s annoying, but so far it’s the only thing that works.”

If the broken item is not on the furniture list and nowhere in the contract, the student can request compensation from the landlord, but he or she has no contractual grounds to stand on, Boidy said.  

WHEN IT’S NOT WORTH IT:

Poor Wi-Fi connection

While is unfortunate your network doesn’t work half the time and your Internet keeps trying to connect to the “Flyboyz” network, there is nothing your landlord can do about it.

“There really is no case to be made,” Boidy said. “It’s unlikely that the landlord includes anything in the lease about this.

Aesthetic qualities

Peeling paint and odd stains on your walls are visually displeasing, but don’t expect your landlord to do cleanup duty anytime soon.

“There are students who demand absolute perfection, but they are probably in the wrong community if they want absolute perfection,” said Thomas Betz, legal attorney at Student Legal Services. “You’re not going to get it.

THE BOTTOM LINE 

Read your lease BEFORE you sign the contract.

“If I could do anything in this office, I’d probably have a big sign at the back, ‘Read your contract,’” Betz said.

After your signature beautifies that thick packet of legal papers, negotiation is the only way to get your landlord to listen to your complaints. Persistence, amiability and follow-up are the best methods through which students should address landlords, Betz said.

“My view is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said. “The tenant needs to complain to the landlord verbally, and always follow it up with an email or a handwritten note and keep a copy of it.”

Even though landlords tend to take advantage of the college market, the discouraging fact won’t get you out of a lease.

“You are legally, contractually bound to what you sign on to,” Boidy said. “Just because you’re a student doesn’t mean you could get out of your lease agreement because you misunderstood. Just because you graduate, does not mean you have any rights to get out of your lease agreement.”

But if you are already signed the lease and your landlord simply does not want to compromise, both the Tenant Union and Student Legal Services encourage students to visit their offices at the Illini Union for assistance. 

Alice can be reached at [email protected]