Students who are having issues with their leases or landlords may feel like they have no option for help since they can’t afford a lawyer. However, West Virginia University’s Student Legal Services can help students with their problems at no extra charge.
Legal services are included as part of students’ fees, so you can’t really refer to the assistance as being free, but students don’t have to pay anything else when they receive help.
Student Legal Services is located in the basement of E. Moore Hall on the Downtown Campus. It’s kind of hidden, but there are plenty of signs to lead students there.
I spoke with Carrie Showalter, attorney for students, and Brian Walker, community coordinator with the Office of Student Life.
Throughout the school year, Showalter said there are varying trends of why students visit the office. During the beginning of the year they’ll be seeking help with maintenance issues. Toward the beginning of the spring semester is usually when students start bringing leases in for review. Near the end of the school year and summer, there’s many issues with security deposits.
Here are a few of the most popular services students seek:
Lease review – Showalter said students can bring in copies of leases before they are signed to make sure they understand them. She stressed that if a landlord says they will repair or replace something before the tenant moves in, that needs to be in writing on the lease before it is signed.
Move-in and move-out checklists – Students need to document what things are damaged in the apartment within 5-10 days of signing the lease. This can be problematic because most students sign leases months before actually moving in. Showalter said the students should do a walk-through after signing the lease so the landlord can’t keep a security deposit to repair something that was broken before the student moved in.
Utility bills – Showalter said she sees many students come in with utility overcharges. Sometimes it may be an issues with a leak, and they can help the students look into what is causing the unexpected increase.
Security deposit issues – Students can seek help if they believe it’s taking too long to get their deposit back after moving out or if they think they weren’t given back enough money.
Student Legal Services will contact landlords on behalf of students and have also represented students in magistrate court, Showalter said. Sometimes it may take one meeting to solve an issue, and sometimes it’s taken as long as 18 months.
One landlord, who Showalter didn’t name, was renting out apartments he didn’t own. Students paid their first month rent and security deposit and then found someone already living there when they attempted to move. The same landlord also double rented some apartments he did own; for example, someone may have signed a lease that ran from May until May, but the person currently living in there had signed a lease that wasn’t up until August.
Showalter confirmed that bedbugs are definitely an issue in Morgantown, as I previously reported. She’s dealt with two cases involving bed bugs – one at a small house and one at a large housing complex.
It’s difficult to identify a source when it comes to bed bugs, Showalter said. They can be brought in by someone who has traveled, but it’s difficult to prove that. If they are unable to prove that a student brought them in, it is typically considered the property owner’s responsibility to fix the problem.
In both cases Showalter dealt with, the landlords took care of the bed bugs, which is an expensive and lengthy process. Exterminators usually require a one-year contract to completely get rid of the bed bugs, she said.
The other buzz word in off-campus housing – mold – wasn’t really an issue until this year, Showalter said. Now, she sees students who are both having serious mold issues and those who are trying to use it as an excuse to break their lease.
I have a lot more information from my talk with Showalter and Walker. In the next post, I’ll discuss more about what type of assistance WVU’s Off-Campus Housing department can offer.