“Even in Hell the peasant will have to serve the landlord, for, while the landlord is boiling in a cauldron the peasant will have to put wood under it” —Russian Proverb
The Union Leader featured a story on Monday night, “Durham to landlords: Safety standards stand.” Landlords (or to use the contemporary term) Property Owners, get a bad rap. When one reads the aforementioned story, it paints a very glib picture…allows the reader to “fill in the blanks.” “Why did Durham, ‘put their foot down’ and adopt a safety code?” or perhaps one might have thought, “Oh Dear! we send our children off to college and they paid outrageous rents for these slums…these dives!” how about this notion: “those evil, greedy landlords unjustly enriching themselves, not fixing their properties while my child is at risk of life or limb living there!” OH THE HUMANITY! THERE OUGHT TO BE A LAW!
Most towns have adopted their own housing codes. If a town does not have a housing code, basic standards are set forth in N.H. RSA 48-A:14 adopted by the state. Durham has always been heavy-handed. The Fire Department and town code enforcement has had a set of ordinances for a very long time, that pits landlords against the town. One such ordinance was limiting the number of occupants to four unrelated persons living in the same dwelling. This ordinance was specifically targeted at college students, but it is the property owner who is on the hook for violations.
Indeed, there are a couple of landlords who collect the money and are clearly negligent in properly maintaining their property (or properties). But, that is everywhere in society. The Durham Landlord Association is an association that advocates for safe habitable properties, responsible and proactive in upkeep acceptable and fit for living in by college students. That, however is far easier said than done.
In late June or July, gaggles of college students show up looking for rentals. they put on their best face, best manners and meet the prospective property manager. Liking the property, the express enthusiastic intent to rent. Before kids are ever handed a pen, however, the property manager provides a lease abstract to the prospective new renters. The lease abstract contains everything, in writing that a renter will find on the lease…The lease that governs their conduct as well as clearly delineating what the property owner’s responsibilities are; i.e. trash removal, repairs, upkeep, plowing, etc.
In a college student off-campus housing lease, provisions limiting the number of occupants at one time (large gatherings) damage/vandalism, parking, rent payment, provisions that govern the number of occupants allowed and subletting restrictions, and a host of other provisions intended to keep the student occupants safe and keep the rental property safe.
Despite the student receiving the lease document, co-signed by parents, the violations soon become flagrant and wanton. When a landlord confronts students about the lease violations, they become insolent, accuse the landlord or harassing them, and often times the parents close ranks, defending the kids bad behavior.
The most recent article states,
“Of about 100 units inspected so far, the fire department has found problems in nearly every one, including inoperable smoke detectors, malfunctioning sprinkler systems and improper holds for fire doors allowing them to remain propped open, according to information provided to Selig by the department.”
Reading that it would appear that Landlords are flagrant violators. Inoperable smoke detectors. Few kids really know how to cook without generating a great deal of smoke. The smoke detector sounds so they unhook or unplug it, despite a lease provision forbidding that. Malfunctioning sprinkler systems can be anything from a dry system with a air leak, causing a compressor to run more than it should, to a wet system that has a slow leak. I would lay odds many have been tampered with by renters. Improper door holds for fire doors. Many of the older buildings have fire doors without the magnetic holds that close doors when the alarm is activated. Other times, those equipped with magnetic holds have been tampered with, vandalized or broken. It happens often and frequently enough that it becomes an inspection issue multiple times. The expectation the property owner sets is that the doors remain closed. Kids will prop them open with a rock, brick or other heavy object, despite a lease provision expressly forbidding it. Other such code violations that renters cause is leaving trash, refuse or furniture in hallways, smoking in common area hallways, tampering, damaging or disabling light fixtures, smoke detectors.
And here are some very common issues I ran into as a Durham property manager. RSA 48-A:14 III stipulates,
“No landlord, as defined by RSA 540-A:1, I, renting or leasing a residential dwelling in a municipality which has not adopted ordinances, codes or bylaws pursuant to this chapter shall maintain those rented premises in a condition in which: …(III) There are exposed wires, improper connectors, defective switches or outlets or other conditions which create a danger of electrical shock or fire;”
Prior to occupancy, the apartment gets a thorough cleaning, repairs are made and some items replaced where need be. The average cost of apartment rehab between tenants is roughly $,3000-5,000, depending on the extent needed. Repairs are made, but in subsequent months that follow, Landlords address repair issues such as broken wall outlets, switches, damaged or broken light fixtures, ruined, stained carpets, cigarettes extinguished on rugs….Despite damage done by tenants, the Landlord is still liable to repair these issues. Collecting those costs is nearly always a battle.
Sub-paragraph VI states, “The floors, walls or ceilings contain substantial holes that seriously reduce their function or render them dangerous to the inhabitants” I’ve seen kids make some pretty big holes in walls. A Landlord is forced to fix the holes and collect payment for the damage later. Often times, the holes and the damage go unreported and are not found until the tenants move out or an inspection takes place.
I have seen kids plug up a toilet tight, causing it to overflow into the apartment below. I subsequently get the call from the apartment under the offending apartment, not the apartment with the plugged toilet. N.H. RSA 540-A:3 IV states,
IV. No landlord shall willfully enter into the premises of the tenant without prior consent, other than to make emergency repairs.
Entering the apartment of the source of water flowing on tenants below will often result in an irate kid threatening the landlord with legal action for entering without notice. They conveniently overlook the emergency repairs portion of the law.
How about when the kids throw a kegger, breaking out the Beer pong boards? The mere presence of a large gathering indicates a party and invites passersby. Now a kid has a party in his apartment…a bunch of people are there that perhaps the kid has never met, and the situation snowballs quickly out of control. You now have an apartment where upwards of one hundred or more kids are crammed in, wall-to-wall consuming alcoholic beverages, many of which are often underage. Some will fight, Some will overindulge. Not to mention this is clearly, a violation of his or her lease. All a landlord can do is call the Durham Police. There is nothing worse than dealing with inebriated teens. The list of issues go on. Another common occurrence is additional people living in apartments, despite a provision prohibiting that. I need not get into detail about collecting rent payments. Simply add that to the mix of challenges a college town landlord faces.
Finally, there are the costs associated with renting to college students. Properties that rent to college students are often times classified as “high risk” properties. Surplus market insurance is often what landlords are forced to purchase. It is very expensive, the deductibles are high. This insurance often costs three times the normal residential-commercial premium. I have managed properties in areas of high crime and drug dealing where the insurance was less.
A careless kid with a bong once caused a fire with upwards of $15,000 of damage, rendering the building uninhabitable for a day. I had to do a mad scramble to work fast and get things back in order.
The UL’s Gretyl Macalaster can shape the story in such a manner that a reader might conclude that Landlords are callous and lacking in diligence. That will, however not change the hard cold facts of what really happens in student housing.
The problem is really very clear. Parents do not properly prepare their kids for life outside of their home, nor impress upon them the responsibilities as a resident where rent is being paid. Many parents fail to underscore that disregarding a lease is disregarding a legal contract to which all parties agreed to.
The complaints are the same. One such “Edward Gagnon” in the online UL edition comments reflect that. He stated, the rent was high, the place was a dump and the landlord withheld security deposit funds. But the larger question is why do parents allow their kids to go off and act like a bunch of pigs and savages? I have three children, two of which are now out on their own. They never acted like this. Clearly, strident parents who are permissive to such irresponsible behavior don’t like to be reminded that their kids are a direct reflection of their household.
Durham can make all the codes, rules and stringent requirements they want to. But laying the responsibility 100% at the feet of the landlord only hurts the town by removing available housing from the rental market. You will notice I never mentioned UNH? The University system turned a blind eye to the bad behavior, often enabling it through employment of the Senate Student Services attorney engages Landlords in protracted expensive legal fights. You stay classy, Durham Officials.