Invasive housing inspections

Students at California State University of Monterey Bay are upset over what they consider to be very invasive housing inspections.

In an article from The Herald, students say their apartment management company’s employees give little prior notice before an inspection, and they search students’ closets to make sure there isn’t anyone living in the apartment who isn’t on the lease.

One example:

Chris Califano, a fourth-year psychology student, moved out of East Campus Housing last semester after being banned from the apartment for noise complaints. He visits his former roommates frequently and he said they were recently served with an inspection notice because Alliance believed Califano was living with them.

“They interrogated my friends, they asked why there were pictures of me. I’m in a lot of pictures, they’re my best friends,” he said. “They looked at the clothes in the closet, kept interrogating, ‘Are they really your clothes?'”

The rental agreement students must sign is a 29-page document, which includes a 10-page handbook of rules and regulations. According to the agreement, the company can enter without permission any time “during an emergency and after giving proper notice to show the unit to prospective tenants, to make repairs or to supply services.”

In West Virginia, no matter what a lease states, it is unlawful for a landlord to enter rental housing at any time whatsoever without the tenant’s consent or reasonable notice in advance, except for the purpose of making emergency repairs. ( Read more on tenant rights here.)

Ever hear of inspection practices like this going on in Morgantown?

-Leann

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Apartment rating websites can be important part of search

I’ll admit that I am big into researching things online before I make a purchase. I’ll read ratings, compare prices, see if there are any special codes for an extra percentage off or free shipping. But for some reason, I never thought to look at apartment ratings before finding a new place to live.

If you’re going to sign a lease to live somewhere for at least a year, it’s probably a good idea to see what other people are saying about the place. Sometimes a nice place can be ruined by the fact that maintenance takes forever to fix things. Or a place may look dirty on the outside, but the inside is taken well care of and in great condition.

The website I found with the most ratings for Morgantown apartments was apartmentratings.com. What’s nice is that you don’t necessarily have to read all of the reviews to get the gist of how tenants feel. Here’s an example:

By looking at the bottom bar, you can see that parking is rated pretty high, while the office staff has received low ratings. It also shows whether pets are permitted, which is important to many people. Out of 47 reviews, The District Apartments received a rating of two out of five. When you click on “The District Apartments” link, it’ll go into a little more detail of how that score was determined.

Parking, maintenance, construction, noise, grounds, safety and office staff ratings make up the final score.

Below the overall score, you can find the user reviews, and a list of tabs with other features.

I suggest that you actually read some of the ratings instead of basing it off of the score to determine the main issues. Some reviews appear to just say, “Stay away” or “NO,” but that’s the subject link that will take you to a full review.

Another nice feature is under the “floorplans” tab where you can find how much rent is, as reported by users.

 You’ll notice next to floorplans, there’s a tab for safety. Safety doesn’t seem to report on crime rates, only if there are any registered sex offenders living in the area. This information is provided by Family Watchdog.

I did find a couple other websites where apartments are rated, but they didn’t  have as many reviews as Apartment Ratings. The other websites are:

One other website that might be helpful in the search for an apartment is  Morgantown Apartments Guide. This site doesn’t have any ratings listed, but it does list locations of apartments and whether they’re pet friendly. It also lists a contact number and web address. However you have to hover over the “WWW” button to see the address, you can’t just click on it to go there.

Before you leave, would you mind letting answering the poll question? Voters are anonymous.

Thanks!

-Leann

The Players: Student Government Association – Part 2

My last post (The Players: Student Government Association – Part 1) discussed how West Virginia University’s Student Government Association is involved with off-campus student housing. I spoke with the SGA’s Director of Off-Campus Housing, Earl Hewitt, to get his thoughts on what the biggest problems were with off-campus housing. This post, part 2, will cover more topics from my interview with him.

Hewitt said WVU holds an off-campus housing fair to address issues and hand out information, but many students don’t use the university’s resources.

There are a couple reasons students may not use these resources – 1) they may not be aware of them and 2) the housing database hasn’t been kept up-to-date.

Hewitt said the off-campus housing search hasn’t been updated, and has many apartments listed that are no longer around. WVU’s Information Technology department runs the Student Life website where the housing search is located. Hewitt said he would like to see the housing search site taken over, either at a city or university level, so that it can be updated and actually be a useful resource for students.

Another option to help with the search for apartments might be a barcode system. Hewitt said that Jim Hunt, of Sunnyside Up, had mentioned a system where barcodes would be placed on mailboxes or front doors of apartments. Students could then scan that barcode on their phones, it would take them to a database that would list who to contact about the apartment, number of bedrooms, amenities and if it had been rented for the next year, among other things.

So has Hewitt experienced any problems with a landlord? Well, his landlord is his father. When he moved to Morgantown, he and his father went into house after house, each one dilapidated. Some had see-through floor boards, some had slanted floors, others has poor roofing. They decided to purchase a property and fix it up, which was not that simple.

Hewitt said it was a “nightmare” dealing with the city to make upgrades to the property. He and his father had to replace the foundation, tear off the back of the house and put in new insulation and wiring. It took around 25 permits, totaling approximately $500, for the entire project.

That may explain why many landlords choose to let their properties go instead of making improvements.

“If I could change one thing, instead of getting upset about new construction, I think the city should worry about old construction,” Hewitt said. “There has to be a push for remodeling homes, or it becomes unsafe.”

Along with improving the condition of housing, Hewitt would like to see more cooperation between students and citizens.

Morgantown residents don’t typically consider students as part of the community, Hewitt said.

Neighborhoods like Sunnyside and South Park have students living next door to families, where loud parties aren’t tolerated like they might be in an all-student neighborhood.

“I wish the student body would be more respectful of children sleeping,” Hewitt said.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a student problem, but it’s just an issue of people being inconsiderate. If you have problems with noisy neighbors, you might want to look into the City of Morgantown’s Noise Ordinance. A few interesting parts:

  • “Radios, Musical Instruments and Similar Devices Operating playing or permitting the operation or playing of any radio, television, phonograph, drum, musical instrument, sound amplifier, or similar device which produces, reproduces, or amplifies sound are not to be used between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. the following day in such a manner as to create a noise disturbance across a real property boundary or within a noise sensitive zone.”
  • Yelling, shouting, whistling, hooting or “generally creating a racket” on public right-of-ways or public spaces between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. to annoy or disturb the quiet of any persons in any business or residence is a violation.
  • The use of drums in general within the city seems to be a violation – “Drums – The use of any drum or other instrument or device for the purpose of attracting attention by creation of noise to any performance, show or sale.”

As a drummer, that last one hurts my heart. But then I think about how loud my neighbors are when they walk up the stairs, so it may not be such a bad thing.

-Leann

The Players: Student Government Association – Part 1

West Virginia University’s Student Government Association is an elected group that “serves as the student’s direct voice to the WVU administration,” according to the group’s website.

The SGA meets 7:30 p.m. every Wednesday in the Mountainlair Hatfields B Room. These meetings are open to students so that they can voice their concerns.

The SGA is comprised of a board of governors and executive officers. Executive officers are in charge of different areas that affect students such as:

  • Student Organizations
  • Off-Campus Housing
  • Greek Liaisons
  • Recruitment and Retention
  • International Student Liaison
  • Diversity
  • Wellness
  • Athletics
  • Neighborhood Associations
  • Residential Affairs
  • Safety
  • Transportation

Obviously the most relevant person to talk to for this blog is the director of off-campus housing, Earl Hewitt. Hewitt is a junior engineering major from Indiana, Pa. He’s also a licensed Real  Estate salesman in Pennsylvania, so he’s very familiar with housing issues.

Last week, I met with Hewitt to discuss what he thinks are some of the biggest issues with off-campus housing.

He said there are two main problems with off-campus student housing in Morgantown:

  1. mold
  2. bed bugs

Let’s talk about mold first – the reason it is such an issue is that there’s no legislature on it here like in other states. Hewitt said only five states have mold-related legislation at this time.

Students want to break leases over mold, he said. But because there’s no legislation, they are having to move home for health reason and still pay rent because their landlords won’t remove the mold. While there’s no link to mold causing diseases, exposure to large amounts can cause illnesses.

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, indoor mold can trigger allergies or allergy-like symptoms in the upper respiratory system. The most common symptoms are:

  • Nasal and sinus congestion
  • Cough
  • Wheezing/breathing difficulties
  • Sore throat
  • Skin and eye irritation
  • Upper respiratory infections (including sinus infections)

Over the past four months, Hewitt has been working with Carrie Showalter of WVU Student Legal Services and Nancy Key of Environmental Health & Safety (Environmental Health and Safety Specialist, Indoor Air Quality) to write legislature related to mold and trying to contact delegates.

Now on to bed bugs – the reason this can be a problem is that it’s quite an expensive problem to fix, especially if the place is already furnished, Hewitt said. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, to remove bed bugs, you must “heat infested articles and/or areas through to at least 113 ºF (45 ºC) for 1 hour. The higher the temperature, the shorter the time needed to kill bed bugs at all life stages.”

And because I’m getting itchy writing about it, I feel it’s only fair that I show you what an adult bed bug looks like.

(photo from http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/housingandclothing/dk1022.html)

There’s also a bed bug registry to find out if there’s been infestations in specific areas or even hotels.

If you live in Morgantown, have you experienced any issues with mold or bed bugs? Please comment and let me know!

Hewitt had many interesting things to say about the quality of housing in Morgantown, but I’m going to save that for the next post. Please check back!

-Leann

Does WV limit late fee charges for rental units?

Today I found a column from the University of Minneapolis’ student paper The Minnesota Daily that brings up some good points.

The writer, Courtney Johnson, mentions issues that I notice are a problem in Morgantown, as well:

“One important thing to remember is to never feel rushed when preparing to sign a lease. A lot of times, due to limited availability of off-campus housing around the University, students feel pressured to sign something — anything — as soon as they can. However, while in a frenzy to sign, inexperienced renters might not be aware of all of the expectations placed by landlords.”

I’ve seen people looking at apartments as early as December for the next school year. Sometimes if a student hasn’t found something by late January, they think they’re not going to find anything decent.

More importantly, Johnson mentions this:

“… a law passed through the State of Minnesota legislature, effective Jan. 1, 2011, which states that landlords are not legally able to charge late fees in excess of 8 percent of the overdue rent payment. This new law prevents landlords from overcharging their tenants and is particularly helpful for the inexperienced renter.”

In many cases, the reason a person’s rent is late is because they don’t have the money. So by charging them more money that they don’t have, it’s only making things worse.

I’ve searched West Virginia’s state code for a law regarding late fees, but I didn’t find anything. It’s possible that I’ve overlooked it, but I’ve contacted someone who will know for sure. I’ll update when I hear back.

UPDATE 1/19/12: According to Brian Walker, who works with Commuter Student Programs/Off Campus Housing for West Virginia University’s Office of Student Life, currently “West Virginia does not have a cap on allowable late fees.”

-Leann

OSU’s student government hands out free window insulation kits

West Virginia University should take note of this – Ohio State University’s Undergraduate Student Government passed out 500 free window insulation kits to off-campus students. According to the Columbus Dispatch’s article, the kits were paid for with money from the student activity fee charged by the university. The OSU Student Government hopes the kits will help students save money on their gas bills.

About 15,600 OSU students live in the immediate area near campus, and a lot of the off-campus houses are older with drafty windows.

Sounds pretty similar to the Sunnyside and South Park areas of Morgantown.

-Leann

The Players: Morgantown Code Enforcement

Today I’m going to focus on another important “player” in the off-campus housing issue –  Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division.

What is code enforcement and what does it do?

The code enforcement division is made up of inspectors who check rental properties to make sure they are up to the city’s code.

Morgantown, West Virginia has more than 7,600 registered rental units and between 3,000 to 3,500 landlords. You can find a complete list of all rental units registered with the city here.

Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division is supposed to inspect each of the city’s thousands of rental units once every three years.

Once a landlord is registered with the city, he/she must make an appointment with the code enforcement office to have all units inspected. The landlord must pay $25 per unit for an inspection. If the landlord doesn’t make an initial appointment, or an appointment within 30 days of the previous letter of compliance expiring, then the code enforcement office will schedule an appointment for the units.

What do Code Enforcement officers look for during inspections?

Code enforcement checks housing for safety issues. The biggest code violation is smoke detectors, according to Chief Inspector Mike Stone. Stone said that every time an officer comes back from an inspection, there’s always a smoke detector violation on the form.

There are four main problems with smoke detectors:

  1. Batteries in smoke detector are dead
  2. Batteries were removed from smoke detector
  3. A plastic bag has been placed over the detector
  4. There is no smoke detector where one is required

The first three issues are the tenants’ responsibility. If they don’t keep working batteries in the smoke detector, they could be fined $500. Also, some tenants place a plastic bag over the detector to prevent it from going off when smoking or cooking, according to Stone.

A landlord can be fined for not having smoke detectors in the proper places. All bedrooms must have a smoke detector, and one must be present outside of the bedrooms. They are not necessary in a kitchen unless the kitchen is the room right outside of the bedroom. Each floor must have at least one smoke detector. If a smoke detector is in a room that it’s not required to be in, it still must have working batteries, and that is the tenant’s responsibility.

Officers look at other safety issues, such as electrical wiring (Is the wiring done properly? Are wires frayed?), extension cords (these should not be overloaded with numerous items) and exits (exits should not be obstructed).

What happens after the inspection?

After the first inspection, the landlord and tenants have three weeks to fix any problems – it depends on whose responsibility it is. After three weeks, a code enforcement officer returns to see if the violations have been fixed. If not, then the landlord or tenant can be taken to court.

When are code enforcement cases heard?

Code enforcement officers are in court every Tuesday from 8 a.m. until noon, and every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

In the future, I plan to attend at least one of these court hearings and take notes to report on how they typically work.

-Leann