Victoria Watson and her roommate had found just what they wanted sitting on the corner of 16th and Norris streets.
The first floor apartment, which prompted Watson to ask about the security of the home, was close to campus, in the heart of an area populated by students like them.
When they signed the lease, the broker said that they had not had any problems with it in the past. It featured double doors that both locked, so Watson and her roommate assumed it would be safe.
Then, they began experiencing issues with the apartment. The day she moved in, Watson asked again about the security and found out that there had in fact been a reported break-in the previous year.
The first week, Watson’s roommate was sleeping when there was another break-in.
With students continuing to flock into apartments and rowhouses on the streets west of campus, developers and realtors are swooping in as well, fixing up older homes, building new ones, and growing a community that on the outside seems to be increasingly catered to a younger population every year.
However, some students have found that the homes that they signed leases for expecting a comfortable lifestyle are marred by shoddy or uncompleted construction, as well as landlords who seem to care little about their problems.
In the case of Watson and her roommate, Watson said her landlord repeatedly tried to cover up problems associated with the house.
“The door was just open, and you would need a key, so she didn’t really know how this happened,” Watson said. “[The landlord] told my dad it was probably the trash man, and told us that it was probably the locksmith, so it was two lies.”
Within a week of the first incident, Watson said there was another incident with an attempted break-in. Watson believed that the landlord breached her lease because he failed to provide a safe environment, as stated in the agreement.
“I’ve signed multiple leases for my four years here, and they are very standard,” Watson said. “This lease was almost more, I wouldn’t say more manipulative, but the wording of it was strange, like he was trying to cover [his own assets.] It was not the typical lease, it was absurd.”
Temple professor J. Brian Seidel is a landlord for off-campus apartments at West Chester University and suggested that students take a thorough look at the lease agreement and question any damages and conditions of the apartment before signing.
“Unfortunately, there are landlords everywhere who can be dishonest either about number of bedrooms, bathrooms or the condition of the house,” Seidel said. “That is why seeing the property prior to signing a lease is extremely important.”
Additionally, Seidel encourages students to inspect appliances such as refrigerators, washer and dryers, and others to ensure they are not charged for damages prior to their move-in.
According to the Pennsylvania Statutes’ Trade and Commerce Chapter, the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act requires all contracts and leases to be easily read and understood. Oftentimes landlords will write up their own leases. Because of this, tenants and landlords run into issues even though the landlord ultimately holds responsibility for the lease agreement.
“[Landlords] should be using the Plain Language lease that is written up by the board of realtors,” said Housing and Small Claims Dispute Director Joseph McDermott. “Landlords can write up their own leases as many times as they want…if the contract is not clear enough…it’s usually held against the person that wrote the document.”
The problems between students and their landlords extends beyond the classic rowhouses and apartments. At the Edge, which Temple ended its contract with this spring, students have expressed concerns with the quality of the apartments in the 7-year-old-building.
“Our couch is broken and they have yet to fix it even though it’s been exactly a month since I told them. The gym amenity is an absolute scam since it has treadmills that randomly turn off, an incomplete dumbbell set, and another broken machine that’s not even assembled,” said one student living at the Edge.
“They have not failed to comply with the agreement they are just incredibly slow at upholding their end of the bargain,” he said.
A representative of the Edge stated that there were no problems, “Everyone is pretty much pretty happy.”
In September 2011, Watchmen Property Management, which offers housing to students in the Temple area, was sued by former tenant Melinda Mendes. According to the plaintiffs, the landlord had refused to call an exterminator for mice within the apartment, and lied about the method of mold removal used. The roommate of the plaintiff was allegedly suffering from mold related illness at the time the case was filed.
“I find your ‘habitation letter’ a complete joke. You have done nothing but outline the many ways you planned and eventually carried out your ‘corner cutting’ plan to fraudulently cover up the fact that the above stated residence is still not a safe and livable house” Mendes said in a letter to Watchmen Property Management included in the case docket.
McDermott, a mediator for lease disputes at the Philadelphia Municipal Court, said most of the cases that make it to the Civil Division usually deal with complete or incomplete repairs.
“Most of the people who come down here are good people, they aren’t trying to take advantage … but they don’t go and research what is required of them, like if they have a license to rent, or if they know what the laws are, or what responsibilities they have,” said McDermott.
“It’s like a chicken or the egg scenario: if you don’t pay the rent, then the landlord can’t keep the property up to minimum standards. If the landlord keeps up the minimum standards, you should be paying the rent,” said McDermott.
Logan Beck, Gabie Bauman and Brian Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.