Two students recently had their near-campus apartment broken into after their landlord failed to install security sensors on their windows.
Juniors Natalie Ramos-Castillo and Eva Alkasov came home on a recent Friday night to one of the worst fears for students living off campus – someone broke into their home and stole their belongings, including laptops and a television.
Burglars broke into the apartment near Willington and Oxford streets through the second-floor window by knocking out the screen and escaped with the living room TV, laptops and their backpacks. In the aftermath of the robbery, the students, who both serve as Temple Student Government senators, have met plenty of other issues, beginning with compiling a record of what was stolen to try to replace their property with insurance.
“I have no record of what was stolen, so basically we have to start fresh.” Alkasov, a political science major, said.
“On top of that, there’s deductibles we have to pay. I have to pay $500 to get stuff back.” Ramos-Castillo, an education major, added.
Since the robbery, the pair has also encountered problems with their landlord.
“She’s tried to pin a lot of this on us,” Ramos-Castillo said. “She said we didn’t lock the windows, and that’s how they got in.”
Ramos-Castillo and Alkasov contend that the windows in their house were either broken or left open by someone other than the tenants and said a contractor working at the house had scaffolding set up outside the window where the burglars entered. The landlord also agreed to install security sensors in the windows but never did, the students said.
The situation is one example of how students sometimes face landlords who don’t make good on safety promises.
“I know a lot of landlords promise the world verbally but deliver nothing with actual services,” Yamile Perez, interim coordinator for Off-Campus Living and Summer Conferences, said. “I think a lot of students are finding out that if it’s not in the lease, legally they’re not bound to offer it.”
Once a student signs a lease to live off campus, there is very little Temple can do to help that student in any direct capacity.
“It’s a contract between them and the management company, so Temple has no wherewithal,” Perez said. “If they sign a lease, it’s tough. By signing it, they’ve agreed that everything in that lease is correct.”
The off-campus living branch of Perez’s job focuses more on helping students find favorable living situations and leases before they sign themselves into trouble.
“A lot of the students we see are already fed up or want to break a lease for whatever reason,” Perez said. “We would like to see students that are starting to look and give them the tools to be better consumers other than renting something and finding themselves in a bind.”
The extent to which a student reviews a lease and can interpret the statutes of it before signing can be critical. Off-campus Living offers a review process to students who have not yet signed leases to ensure they follow all the guidelines from Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.
“Before you sign the lease, it’s a good idea to write what you think is fair and then have the landlord review that,” criminal justice major Madalee Apgar said. “I did that. I was lucky to room with some girls who are knowledgeable about that kind of thing, so they taught me a lot about my rights.”
Ramos-Castillo and Alkasov, however, say they had to see and sign their lease under suspicious circumstances from the get-go.
“The problem with the realtor was we didn’t get to see the lease till the day we moved in, so we had no time to look over it,” Ramos-Castillo said.
The fact that a landlord would not give out a lease until moving day is a cause for concern, Perez said.
“If a landlord will not show you a lease until the day you move in, that should raise red flags,” he said. “If something does not look or smell right, it’s not right.”
If students find themselves bound to unfavorable leases, Off-Campus Living can direct them to the Tenant Union Representative Network, a non-profit that advocates for tenants.
“They answer those kind of legal questions like ‘Can I sue them?’ [and] ‘How much can I get out of this or break my lease?’” Perez said. “They help you in that sense.”
TURN does not provide lawyers to tenants, just legal advice. Campus Safety Services does not get involved in disputes between landlords and tenants because it is a legal issue, not a law enforcement one.
If a student cannot reach an agreement with his or her landlord and cannot get the help of a lawyer, a last resort would be to withhold rent or break the lease, which is what Ramos-Castillo and Alkasov did. They will move out by the end of the month.
“It actually went really well, just because there have been so many problems,” Alkasov said. “This is the easiest way not to get into any legal issues.”
Their landlord could not be reached for comment Monday.
Students can also use the terms of their leases against landlords if they are aware of their tenants’ rights to settle disputes. It is better for a student be aware of the service he or she is getting before signing a lease than to find issues after a legally binding contract has been signed.
“If the landlord is offering you the world, make sure it’s in the original lease,” Perez said. “So you have a leg to stand on and say, ‘You didn’t give me this service.’”
Brian Dzenis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.