Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Finding ways to improve student renting

[This originally appeared in the December 10th, 2009 issue of the Badger Herald. Yes, it is basically just a rehash of two earlier blog posts. Originally, my piece was going to be on diversity issues, but the night before the Herald declared their Diversity Week over, so I had to put something together on in short order, and trust me, I know my hit counts, not many people had seen this 🙂 ]

Stable and worry-free housing is critical to students’ academic and personal well-being. After tuition, school housing is probably the most expensive and complicated challenge most students face. Everyone knows somebody with rental horror stories, if they don’t have any of their own. Worse, these horrors were often avoidable. The university makes some effort to help students, primarily with the Campus Area Housing List, but we should demand more. As an ASM representative, I have two proposals under consideration in this area.

The first is acting to secure and expand housing support and counseling services by contracting with an outside provider. ASM, with the chancellor’s consent, would develop a request for proposals and ask area providers to bid to provide these services. In the Madison area, there are several organizations capable of bidding and providing housing services. The organization that provides the best value would be awarded the contract.

ASM would request a range of possible services, and exactly what we purchase will somewhat depend on what the different organizations are able to provide. At a high level, the services can be broken into three large themes. The first is focuses on “help desk”-type services, exclusively for UW students. This could be in person, over the phone or via e-mail to answer questions about tenant rights, lease and subletting agreements, and avenues for enforcement. The second theme is broader outreach efforts, such as educating first-time renters before they sign leases, and outreach efforts to remind current renters of their rights and responsibilities. Finally, providers could offer direct services or consolidate existing services, such as operating the landlord rating website or helping with documentation management in rental disputes.

Currently, the ASM budget for next year allocates $50,000 to purchase some or all of these services. That amount will be reviewed by the SSFC before becoming final. It is important to recognize that this amount is really not an increase in seg fees. In years past, ASM has funded these services through the GSSF. This year, no student group was determined eligible to provide the services. If we purchase services using an outside provider, it looks like a decrease in one column and an increase in another, from a seg fee perspective. The $50,000 is actually less than what the SSFC last fully funded a student group to provide a year’s worth of services.

The second proposal, which may be tied to part of the first proposal, is to create a “housing fair” in the fall of 2010. The fair is simple to explain: imagine a college recruiting fair you might have gone to in high school, but for apartments instead of colleges.

Landlords, both big and small, would have a booth or a table and could tell students about their properties in person. They could sign up students for showings on the spot (or, if they really wanted to, sign a lease on the spot, though that’s not recommended).

A fair is advantageous for landlords because it lets them “sell” their apartments in a much more personal way than any advertising they could buy. They’ll also get exposure to many more students in a short timeframe, all of who have apartments on their minds. At the same time, students benefit from the large event, where they can see many options in a short timeframe and immediately have their questions answered. Furthermore, they can interact with landlords and discover apartments they might not ever have found.

There’s a higher purpose for the fair, too: if successful, the fair could become the kickoff to the annual rental season. In 2010, the fair would have to be in November for it to be at all relevant. With time, as the fair grows and gains importance, we could push the date for the fair back a bit each year, in effect pushing back the start of the rental season for the upcoming year. The end goal would be to eventually push the start back into the spring semester.

As an aside, Ald. Bridget Maniaci has a proposal that’s just about to be taken up by city committees that would legislatively accomplish this goal, by prohibiting a landlord from renting an apartment until the current tenant’s lease is at least half up. Currently, the landlord must wait until one-quarter is up, hence the mad dash on Nov. 15. I enthusiastically support Maniaci’s proposal and hope other alders sign on, but I am not optimistic for its chances. At one point, the deadline was one-third of the lease term, but several years ago it was reduced as a concession to landlords, some of whom would sign a lease more than a year in advance if they could. They will fight the new deadline tooth and nail. Furthermore, Maniaci’s proposal will not be able to address special provisions in the lease that allow an earlier date. Pressure from the marketplace might be the only way to make progress there.

A later signing date would be in the best interests of everyone. In November, many students don’t yet know their plans for the next year. They may not know future roommates well enough to really know what they’re getting themselves into. Current tenants have barely unpacked, and may not have even turned on the heat in their apartments and have no idea what a Wisconsin winter in their apartment is like before being asked to renew for another year.

The ASM proposals would benefit from more student feedback, both to refine them and to give the ASM Student Council some feeling if students are interested in these ideas. Please, visit the ASM website and let ASM and SSFC representatives know your thoughts, or stop by and visit with any ASM member during office hours around campus, or come and speak at the Open Forum of any ASM meeting.

Erik Paulson (epaulson@unit1127) is a Ph.D. student in computer science.

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Making the housing search easier for UW-Madison students

The Housing and Tenant Support Services I proposed for the 2010-11 ASM Budget has passed the first few hurdles, and is included in the first draft of the ASM Internal Budget, with $50,000 in funding.  The next stop will be the SSFC, probably sometime in mid January.  Once there, it may be left as-is, raised or lowered, or deleted entirely. I feel fairly confident that the SSFC will see the value and will leave it funded at a significant level before returning the budget back to the Council.

In my initial post, I detailed a number of services that I thought we might want to include in the eventual RFP. My plan is to further develop that list as a draft RFP, and start sending it through ASM and the community looking for feedback.  There are other efforts ongoing this year that we may want to leverage as part of the ASM funds. For example, Alder Bryon Eagon is developing a framework for Landlord/Tenant mediation, crafted towards students. These mediators, with some sort of city certification, could have some legal authority or at least a role to play in eventual court proceedings. It is possible that as part of the services ASM purchases, we could get dedicated time with these mediators. I’ll have much more to say about the RFP in a future post.

One idea that I want to move forward with, even if the Tenant Support Services funding is entirely removed from the ASM Internal Budget is the creation of a housing fair in the fall of 2010. The management of this fair may be something that we ultimately hand over to the contracted service provider, but that provider won’t start until July of 2010 at the earliest. We need to get started before that, so I’m going to propose the initial investigation of a Housing Fair as an ASM Intern Project for the spring semester.

The fair is pretty simple to explain: imagine a college recruiting fair that you might have gone to in high school, but for apartments instead of colleges. It would take place at the Great Hall in Memorial Union, or the Kohl Center’s concourse, or some other larger public space. For the first go-round, I was thinking a one day event, say from 3pm to 7pm.

Landlords, both big and small, would have a booth or a table, and could tell students about their properties in person. They could sign up students for showings on the spot (or, if they really wanted to, sign a lease on the spot, though I wouldn’t encourage that.)

A fair is advantageous for landlords, because it lets them “sell” their apartments in a much more personal way than any advertising they can buy. They’ll also get exposure to many more students in a short time frame, all of who have apartments on their minds.  At the same time, students benefit from a large event, where they can see many options in a short time frame and immediately have their questions answered. Furthermore, they can interact with landlords, and discover apartments that they might never have found. Finally, no fair would be complete without schwag, and who doesn’t want a frisbee with “Steve Brown Apartments” or “CHT” stamped on top?

Concurrent with the fair, we could have short seminars on basic tenant education issues. This would be ideal for the contracted provider to manage. Community services may be interested in having a booth at the fair as well – Community Car, Lazybones Laundry, some of the food delivery services, Charter, etc. It might be a little early for them, but they might be interested and it’s worth inviting them

There’s a higher purpose for the fair, too: if successful, I could imagine the fair being the kickoff to the annual rental season. In 2010, we’d have to have the fair in November for it to be at all relevant. With time, as the fair grows and gains importance, we could push the date for the fair back a bit each year, in effect pushing back the start of the rental season for the upcoming year. The end goal would be to eventually push the start back into the spring semester.

As an aside, Alder Bridget Maniaci has a proposal that’s just about to be taken up city committees that would legislatively accomplish this goal, by prohibiting a landlord from renting an apartment until the current tenant’s lease is at least half up. Currently, the landlord must wait until one quarter is up, hence the mad dash on November 15th. (Up until a few years ago, it was 1/3, but was reduced as part of a compromise to fix other language.) I enthusiastically support Maniaci’s proposal and hope the other downtown Alders sign on, as well as a few from the edges of town. If her proposal passes, we could still have the fair, just later in the year.

A later signing date would be in the best interests of everyone. In November, many students don’t yet know their plans for the next year. They may not know future roommates well enough to really know what they’re getting themselves into. Current tenants have barely unpacked, and may not have even turned on the heat in their apartments and have no idea what a Wisconsin winter in their apartment is like before being asked to renew for another year.

There is also the possibility of eventually hosting a second fair, near the end of May. This would help students who weren’t in Madison this spring, such as study-abroad students, but the main beneficiaries would be first year graduate and professional students. They have an extremely difficult task of finding housing, usually in a one or two day whirlwind visit. I know in Computer Sciences, most first-year students have terrible apartments, and move after their first year when they can actually search for apartments.  It would be a relief if they could attend a fair on say a Thursday, and look at apartments on Friday or Saturday.  Many landlords also prefer not to list their apartments in the fall rush, and instead would rather wait until later in the year. Often, this is an attempt to legally discriminate against students, so they probably wouldn’t participate anyway, but if it was aimed more at graduate students it might be a different story. This is likely not something we can pull off in the spring of 2011, but could be attempted in future years.

Now, for some boring logistics, and the part of the post that’s a little more aimed at ASM.  First, this is probably big enough that it will take two interns. I’m indifferent as to where they’ll wind up; this seems appropriate for interns with Academic Affairs, Legislative Affairs, or Shared Gov, or interns who work with the Chair or Vice Chair. There’s enough stuff going on with the city that Leg Affairs is probably my first choice, but if one of the chairs feels strongly about it, they can have it.

The goals for the intern part of the project are to organize a couple of different things, not necessarily to run the actual fair.  First, we need to really flesh out the plan for how the fair would work. Then, with something we can take to landlords, we need to gain the support of enough landlords to make it worthwhile doing. Working with some of the big landlords, as well as the Apartment Associations is key here.  We’ll also want to talk with city Alders, the Housing Committee, and the Campus Area Housing office of the University.

We want to make it as frictionless as possible to get people to attend, both presenters and students. Ideally we wouldn’t charge any landlords anything to have a booth at the fair, but if we have costs for the fair we’ll need to find a way to pay for them.

The final wrap-up will be to come up with a management structure for the fair, so we can hand it off to someone at the end of the semester, and as much as possible have them just execute the strategy we put together this spring.

This is much more of a write-up than would typically be done for an ASM Intern project. This relates to my legislation requiring Council sign-off on Intern Projects, and is above and beyond what I had in mind for other proposals.

The next step for this proposal will be at the ASM Student Council on December 9th 2009. Please feel free to email me or other any council member with feedback, leave a comment, or come and speak at Open Forum. I think I’ll move to refer it to a couple of different committees for further feedback, and then on to the Chair for possible implementation in the spring.