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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