Last spring, I rushed into my apartment, my phone open to a stream of angry texts from my roommates. I turned on every faucet I could find, only to come to terms with the situation.
The water was shut off.
Paid for by our landlord at the time, we were without running water in our four-bedroom apartment for the next five days. Our plumbing was shot: we had to shower at friends’ apartments and dorms, even using plastic water bottles to brush our teeth.
Only recently I learned the standards of living at my apartment were likely in violation of the Implied Warranty of Habitability, a Pennsylvania law requiring landlords to provide their tenants with housing that is “safe, sanitary and healthful,” according to the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania. But at the time, I didn’t know my rights.
I was a new renter, unsure how to advocate for myself. If I did, maybe I’d have safe and healthy housing sooner.
The majority of upperclassmen live off campus, according to Temple University’s Office of Off-Campus Living, with a number renting for the first time. As the 2020-21 academic year approaches, it is essential to have a strong understanding of one’s rights as a tenant.
For Raksha Balaji, a junior finance major, living in her first off-campus apartment grew tiresome when her management company didn’t answer her phone calls and emails about renewing her lease for the upcoming year. When she finally got a response after weeks, the company said they already signed the lease with another group of tenants.
“I just wish there was a way that we could hold these people accountable without having to take legal action,” Balaji said.
Holding landlords and management companies accountable is typically a difficult pursuit.
For example, in cases where tenants withhold rent when landlords are refusing to make necessary repairs — something they’re legally allowed to do — landlords are barred from taking retaliatory evictions against their tenants due a local fair housing ordinance, WHYY reported in December 2019.
Still, there were about 2,300 retaliatory evictions in Philadelphia violating this ordinance in 2018, with 42 percent filed in the months before conducting a proper inspection of the complaints made, WHYY further reported.
In the unfortunate case when students are threatened with eviction and cannot afford a lawyer, they would be entitled to free legal representation due to the city’s “Right to Counsel” law, passed in November 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Tenants with an annual gross income of $24,980 for a single person would be eligible.
This semester, Sydney Rebhun, a junior communication sciences and disorders major, walked into her apartment to broken pipes, causing her toilets and bathtub to overflow with dirty, feces-filled water that flooded the bathroom, hallway and a bedroom, she said.
Her landlord only offered her small compensation and later a maid service unequipped to treat the situation. At one point, Rebhun’s landlord refused both to further help or provide the property manager’s contact information, she said.
When she realized that the situation wasn’t going to improve, Rebhun called CBS 3 to report on the story. That day, the landlord arrived with cleaning help.
“It wasn’t until the news got involved that they agreed to have a restoration service,” Rebhun said. “Before that, it was just a $150 credit.”
I began writing this column intending to encourage students to learn their rights, and while I still stand by that, it’s clear that even when tenants do advocate for their rights, they’re ignored.
So long as tenants are abiding by the terms of a lease, landlords should be willing to make any necessary repairs and communicate with their tenants.
“My landlord is never here,” said Olivia Hansberry, a senior dance and psychology major living off campus. “In terms of the maintenance requests I make, it’s almost as if I’m not heard. I try to call the office and I don’t get any response from them. Everything is in terms of email, which is really frustrating if I’m having an emergency.”
As students sign leases for the upcoming academic year, it’s essential that landlords work to make their properties livable, clean and properly maintained.
Likewise, students should gain a strong understanding of their rights and responsibilities as tenants.
“We encourage students to know and stand up for their rights as tenants regardless of who they are renting from,” wrote Doretha Starling, administrative assistant for the Office of Residential Life and Housing, in an email to The Temple News.
Students can review their tenant rights and responsibilities at the resources page on the Office of Off-Campus Living’s website.
Signing a lease for the first time should be an exciting transition into adulthood, but with the exploitative practices of some property managers, it’s becoming a nerve-wracking prospect.