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Landlords and Leasers

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College students and a lost security deposit: It’s a tale as old as time.

But a landlord choosing not to return the security deposit at the end of a lease is not always the result of a water heater being thrown off a balcony or ripping a kitchen counter from the wall during a drunken college party. 

The transient nature of a city like Athens — where the population is widely college students who spend a few years in town before they pack their bags and move on — puts local landlords at an advantage over their tenants.

“If (students are) trying to leave town and get about their careers, the last thing they need to do is be involved in a lawsuit,” former City Councilmember Pat McGee said. 

McGee, who recently finished his final term as a member of Athens City Council in December and retired from Ohio University’s Center for Student Legal Services after 19 years, said the city is sometimes complicit in the issues students and local residents face with housing and landlords. 

Currently, no tenants serve on council, according to McGee. However, two current members of City Council — Sarah Grace and Peter Kotses — are landlords.

“You have a council that is not necessarily sympathetic to tenants,” he said. “They’re too busy playing this game of ‘We don’t want the students to take over Palmer Street or have spring fests’ or anything.”

While he said that City Council could play a larger role in protecting tenants, the job of enforcing regulations and laws on landlords is up to the city executives, which includes the mayor’s office, code enforcement and the city law director.

“The city’s been pretty lax as far as trying to put the pressure on the landlords,” he said. McGee said there are a few repeat offenders in town — he thought of three or four landlords who have routinely had issues with students, although he did not name them. 

Ohio U students often feel pressured to sign their off-campus leases nearly a year in advance of the lease’s actual start date. Additionally, many of the leases offered to students require “joint and several liability,” which loosely means that each tenant who signed the lease is equally responsible for any damages done to the property.

McGee said these two situations drive housing issues in Athens.

But Kimberlee Francis, the managing attorney at the Center for Student Legal Services, said it’s all about knowing and exercising your legal rights as a tenant.

If they pay the $15 fee per semester, students living on and off campus have access to the CSLS for a variety of legal issues they may face while in college. 

Francis has handled a large portion of the center’s tenant/landlord disputes since she started as a staff attorney in 2014. In 2019, tenant/landlord disputes made up 36.65% of what students were advised on by the CSLS, according to Courtney Turner, the center’s office manager.

Francis said the center is able to offer legal counsel on rental condition issues that result in lease termination, security deposits, contract, and renewal issues. It also has a “lease review” service, where students can sit down with an attorney at the CSLS and walk through each part of a lease prior to signing. 

But when it comes to renting, Francis said that knowing the landlord is key. 

“When you sign a lease, that’s such a huge financial commitment,” Francis said. “You need to know your landlord.” 

Both McGee and Francis recommended tenants look up their landlord, as well as the rental company’s name, on the Athens County Municipal Court dockets prior to signing a lease. This will show how often a landlord has been sued by — or sued — their tenants. 

Francis also said it would be a good idea to call code enforcement and check out public records about a landlord. One valuable piece of information, if available, is how often tenants have put their rental payments into escrow, according to McGee. Escrow is the process of paying rent to the clerk of courts, rather than the landlord, in an effort to force that landlord to fix issues and conditions.

But Francis’ biggest piece of advice for anyone who chooses to seek legal remedies for various issues with a rental property or a landlord is to document everything. 

She recommends that tenants take a video as they walk through the entire property to document conditions when moving in and moving out from an apartment or house. 

“If we have that information and that evidence, we’re successful in getting back what our clients are due,” she said. 

McGee also cautioned against signing a lease where “alternative” or “discounted” rent is offered. He said this is a reversal of reality, where rent is offered at a “discounted” price if it is paid before a certain date; if it’s not paid by that date, the price goes up. He said the “discounted” price is oftentimes the regular rent, meaning the rent due after the passage of the due date is jacked up.

“Think carefully,” Francis said. “Know what you’re signing and who you’re living with. Understand your landlord and understand there are a ton of rights available to you.”

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