Suburban slumlords
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    It didn’t occur to me to be worried about the maggots until it got warm. My house was giant and drafty, so I tried not to think about bugs unless they were bigger than my hand. But then the smells started coming. They’d seep through the ceiling a little more every time the sun came out. When we were sure there was something dead up there, we emailed our landlord. Then we called him. Then we told him every time he dropped by. The carcass is probably still up there.

    Better dead than alive though.

    “I always thought I was going to wake up one day and there’d be a big-ass raccoon on the floor curled up in my room,” says Weinberg senior Luke Bonucci. “I had a hole in my wall that was just a vent that they didn’t have a cover for, and there was a raccoon that lived inside that vent. I could hear it walking along; I could hear its claws on the metal inside the vent.” So he put his dresser in front of the hole. If one of the raccoons living in the walls got too noisy, he’d smack the wall, sending it scurrying to someone else’s room.

    “As long as I can remember being in that house I can remember there being raccoons in the ceiling,” says Bonucci’s roommate Rob Baroch, a McCormick senior. Seven roommates lived in that three-story house, 1012 Garnett, last year.

    “They hung out over the shower,” says McCormick senior Jeremy Nudell, another roommate. “You’d take a shower and they would stampede across the ceiling. And they’d scratch at your ceiling when you were sleeping. It became really disturbing after a while.”

    “Students should not live like that,” says 5th Ward alderman Delores Holmes. “They need to know that they have rights and that landlords have responsibilities to keep the property up to standards.”

    The roommates called the landlord. And the maintenance man, and anyone else who’s responsibility it was to remove the family of raccoons from their walls. They were told it was no big deal–it’s just mice. “Even though we saw a family of raccoons walking into a hole in the roof,” Bonucci says. “We saw it.”

    They couldn’t get rid of them, so they named them all “Coon-coon” and learned to live with them. “It was co-habitation,” Bonucci says. “We were just upset that they didn’t have to pay rent.”

    When the living room filled with flies near the end of the year, they didn’t even bother calling the landlord. Bonucci took care of it himself. “I took out a can of Raid, and I was standing in the middle of the room just turning around in circles spraying Raid everywhere, and they were just dropping. It brought a whole new meaning to that phrase.” They figured they were better off leaving the landlord out of it.

    “The last half of our lease we just tried to avoid them,” says Baroch, “because anytime you dealt with them it would just cause more problems than it solved.”

    ***

    My landlord Andy was great with the small stuff, like repairing busted pipes and broken dishwashers. But anytime we tried to get him to improve the quality of living he tried to raise the rent. Take the windows. They were drafty enough that bluebottle flies could work their way in the sides, and a few of them didn’t have screens. Andy said if we wanted new windows we would have to pay for them. We didn’t argue because we didn’t know that there’s an Evanston ordinance that requires all windows to have screens during the summer. He was counting on our ignorance.

    “Students should not live like that,” says 5th Ward alderman Delores Holmes, whose ward encompasses the majority of off-campus students in Evanston. She’s been working, along with neighbors, students, ASG and Northwestern administration to educate students on holding landlords accountable. “They need to know that they have rights and that landlords have responsibilities to keep the property up to standards.”

    According to the 1012 Garnett roommates, the previous tenants left furniture stacked to the ceilings, moldy food in the refrigerator and dirt everywhere. But the landlord left the house in disrepair.

    That’s not something the guys from 1012 Garnett knew when their heating broke and they were studying in their coats. “You could see our breath inside, in the TV room,” Bonucci says. It took a week and a half before anyone came to fix it.

    Too often, students bear with substandard living conditions because we don’t know our rights. Landlords take advantage, and we become the victims.

    Stacy Uchida, a Weinberg senior, says students are willing to live in bad conditions for a simple reason. “We don’t have much choice,” she says. “Where else are you going to live?”

    ***

    “There is a lot of drinking and then a lot of vandalizing of the property,” Nancy Gabriel, the property manager for 1012 Garnett wrote in an e-mail. “Once students threw a couch out the window and lit it on fire. Another time, they manufactured alcohol in the basement.”

    D’arienzo says it’s this behavior that causes landlords to have higher expectations and more codes for student renters. “They’re trying to maintain as much of a sense of order as they can,” he says.

    Unfortunately, that also means landlords often treat student tenants with less respect than they would normal ones. According to the 1012 Garnett roommates, the previous tenants left furniture stacked to the ceilings, moldy food in the refrigerator and dirt everywhere. But the landlord left the house in disrepair and the guys weren’t able to move into the house until a week after their lease started. A cleaning crew wasn’t sent until a week after that.

    Patel, Bonucci and Baroch now live in a raccoon-free apartment. Photo by Blake Sobczak / North by Northwestern

    The city of Evanston’s Web site has a long list of regulations and restrictions on how landlords must keep up their properties, including requiring that “the interior of every structure…be free from any accumulation of rubbish or garbage”—something that the 1012 Garnett landlord ignored and the tenants put up with. Landlords just need someone to enforce those laws–even when students are the tenants. Students may not be ideal neighbors, but they still have rights.

    Jeff Murphy, the assistant director of Evanston’s Property Standards Division, worries that students don’t report landlord violations because they’re afraid they’ll be evicted. “If a student contacts us they’re not going to end up on the street at the end of the day,” Murphy says. The property standards division might ask students to move out, but they’ll find them somewhere else to live first. Students need to know their rights in order to get the help they need.

    So where do you turn for help—the university?

    ***

    Looking for information about off-campus living at Northwestern? Try contacting the university’s off-campus housing department and you’ll probably end up on the phone with Joseph Hunter, a part-time Weinberg student and administrative assistant for the Department of Graduate Housing.

    “As far as off-campus housing goes, we don’t even touch it,” Hunter says. “Nobody on campus does.”

    Turns out there is no department of off-campus housing. Just a Web site that tells students to check Craigslist and keep parties quiet. To get a copy of the Tenant-Landlord Ordinance, Evanston’s official document of renter’s rights, students are told to come by the office. And according to Hunter, no one stops in to pick up the ordinance. Which is good, because he doesn’t have any to hand out.

    There is no department of off-campus housing at Northwestern. Just a Web site that tells students to check Craigslist and keep parties quiet. If anyone does call with a landlord problem, they’re turned away.

    If anyone does call with a landlord problem, they’re turned away. “We pretty much have a template down that there’s nothing we can do for them,” Hunter says.

    Mark D’arienzo, the associate director for University Housing Administration, says that it has never been university policy to “hold the hands” of students as they transition from residence halls to off-campus housing. He knows there are problems when students move off campus. It’s just not his job to fix them.

    “Students living in the residence halls receive a lot of information regarding how to go about doing things on campus,” says Virginia Koch, senior assistant director of Residential Life. “But there’s not a lot of education done on what to do after you move off-campus. It’s really part of their learning curve to figure out what types of services are available.”

    All the Northwestern officials interviewed knew they needed to provide more help to off-campus students. They just didn’t know how. Even their advice for students is divided. Lucile Krasnow, Northwestern’s special assistant for community relations, advises students not to settle for less than their rights, but is quick to change the subject to off-campus parties. D’arienzo only offers the advice to “Be nice to your neighbors.”

    Northwestern has always taken a limited role in helping students moving off-campus compared to other schools. Loyola University in Chicago works closely with students, providing off-campus information sessions and hosting housing fairs, where students can find apartments and meet potential landlords. They also give students incentive to stay on campus.

    “We have about 15 apartment-style halls for our sophomore, junior and senior students,” says Michelle Lata, assistant director for Resident Services at Loyola. The apartments are similar to Northwestern’s sought-after Kemper suites, equipped with personal kitchens and bathrooms. “What we want to do is transition them from a more first year, traditional setting to something that’s a little more independent,” Lata says.

    It’s working. “I like my on-campus apartment much, much, much better than my freshman dorm,” says Liz Hegarty, a Loyola sophomore. “I’m still extremely close to campus without living absolutely next to 50 people and having no privacy.”

    Koch knows that singles and apartments are popular, but says they’re not possible (Kemper only holds 177). If more Northwestern students wanted to stay on campus–in any dorm–they’d be out of luck. “There physically isn’t a bed for every student at Northwestern,” D’arienzo says. Some students must live off campus, and then must deal with slumlords on their own.

    ***

    It wasn’t always like this. A few years ago the university cared enough about students moving off campus to provide apartment listings. Murphy’s office regularly received calls from the university asking if Evanston buildings were up to code. Then the focus shifted.

    “This decree was passed down from on high that we were no longer going to post off-campus housing,” Hunter says.

    But while the university had decided to ignore off-campus students, ASG stepped up.

    “I’ve definitely heard stories about students who have put up with lower property standards because they’re worried about getting kicked out of their property,” says Weinberg senior Jilian López, director of ASG’s External Relations. “They’re not sure whether to talk to their landlord or to talk to the city or to talk to the university or who to talk to. You shouldn’t have to live without heat when it’s freezing outside.”

    1012 Garnett is located about one block south of the Foster El stop. Photo by Vi-An Nguyen / North by Northwestern

    Instead of hoping students would figure out the housing game for themselves, ASG’s External Relations Committee decided to do something. They started with the Off-Campus Housing Evaluations, a Web site where students could rank their apartment and their landlord, letting future tenants know about potential problems. If students consistently used the site to rate and research apartments, landlords would have to meet student demands or risk bad ratings. The site gives students a way to regulate landlords without resorting to the city or the school.

    But this spring ASG has something even bigger planned.

    “We want to make it a one-stop shop for students looking to move off-campus,” López says. ASG is looking to build, with Northwestern, a Web site that would house all of the information students need to move into an apartment. How to recycle, when to take out the trash, what to do on vacation, and who to call when your landlord isn’t doing his or her job, all on one easily searchable page. The interactive components, like the off-campus housing evaluations, will be posted on ASG’s Web site. “It’s a good temporary solution, until we can afford to have a real off-campus housing office,” López says.

    Because of the size of the project and the necessary webspace, ASG has enlisted Krasnow and Burgie Howard, the interim dean of students. They’ll work together to compile all of the information students need to create a Web site where they can find it. They hope that once students know what to do, landlords will stop taking advantage of students’ lack of housing knowledge.

    “There are lots of student situations that have been difficult, messy, disappointing,” Krasnow says. “I have sympathy for students who are in substandard housing, probably for too much money.”

    ***

    The guys from 1012 Garnett don’t live there anymore. They thought about it, but when the landlord tried to raise the rent by 10 percent they found a similar house farther north. The heat works, and so far there haven’t been any signs of raccoons. And the best part? No slumlord.

    None of the guys mentioned nostalgia for the dorms, and there’s no reason to. With a basic understanding of tenant rights and a little stubbornness, students can get their house in the condition they want. The proposed off-campus housing Web site will help, but knowing when to put a foot down is more important.

    “Don’t be afraid to be demanding of the landlord,” Murphy says. “They are making a lot of money on these properties and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them.”

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