When University of Wisconsin senior Delaney Egan decided to move into Equinox Apartments, she was hoping to have one “good” apartment experience before wrapping up her college career.
While Egan had had a largely positive experience with past apartments, she had faced some troubles, like when someone shot her window with a BB gun in sophomore year. She believed the newer, high rise building would make up for all the problems she’d had earlier. But after just a few months into her Equinox lease, she realized the building was more like “a party dorm without a house fellow.”
Egan’s neighbors — four post-graduate students — would constantly disrupt her and her roommates, leaving them uncomfortable in their own home. In addition to making noise, Egan said her neighbors had also damaged her property and an exit sign in the hallway.
“My roommate’s a night shift nurse and shares her room wall with the outside hallway,” Egan said. “Sometimes, [neighbors] would come and just pound on her wall and on our door in the middle of the night for no reason and wake us up.”
When she tried to do something about the constant disruptions, Egan faced questions and challenges. She said her landlord would blame her and her roommates for making noise and barely reprimanded her neighbors for anything they did. Not only did Egan feel ignored, but she also felt she didn’t know about any resources that could help her.
“I think landlords tend to take advantage of those who haven’t lived on their own, are new to the area or are renting for the first time. [Landlords] say that ‘this is how it’s supposed to go,’ but it’s not.”Abby Schaefer
Egan is one of many student renters who have faced tough situations, but didn’t know what to do about them. This becomes worse when landlords and property managers fail to cooperate with otherwise largely inexperienced renters.
While many landlords treat their tenants fairly, students tend to be unaware of their tenant rights and responsibilities, making them easy to be taken advantage of.
Inexperienced renters feel targeted
Most freshmen have to decide on sophomore year housing within three months of arriving on campus. UW senior Maggie Heinemann said she didn’t know enough about what to do and felt pressured into making a decision quickly.
“[Apartment companies] make it seem like you have to sign right away otherwise all units will be gone but that’s not true,” Maggie Heinemann said. “There’s just a lot of pressure on freshmen to sign and then they end up signing with people they barely know because they don’t know better.”
Maggie Heinemann, who currently lives in a JSM Properties apartment, said she chose to live in UW Housing in her sophomore year because she felt “overwhelmed” and unprepared. Constant emails and fliers from property management companies didn’t make it easier for her to know what to do.
UW alumna Fallon Morrissey said student renters are “not that difficult to be taken advantage of” because of how inexperienced they are. Choosing where to live so early in their college career could increase their likelihood of being manipulated.
“I think if you keep a good open line of communication, it allows tenants to trust you and be more comfortable letting you know about issues they’re having or anything like that.”Elizabeth Hoff
Randall Park Rentals Property Manager Sheena Lewis said most student concerns stem from the confusion that comes with being a first-time renter. They don’t always remember details, like when to pay their rent and sometimes, information is miscommunicated. To alleviate this, Lewis said they like to send email reminders reiterating this information.
Palisade Property Manager Elizabeth Hoff said keeping an open line of communication between managers and renters is key to ensuring students talk openly about their problems.
“I think if you keep a good open line of communication, it allows tenants to trust you and be more comfortable letting you know about issues they’re having or anything like that,” Hoff said.
Still, clear communication between tenants and landlords is not the case with all landlords.
Halfway through her senior year, Morrissey’s apartment changed management, which led to some misunderstandings. When she’d initially signed her lease, Morrissey had agreed to take her new apartment “as is,” meaning it wasn’t cleaned out when she first moved in. According to their lease, this also meant that she and her roommates could move out of the apartment without cleaning it because that’s how they first received it.
But Morrissey’s new landlord did not accept this agreement and threatened to take money from their security deposit if everything wasn’t “spotless” at move out, she said. When Morrissey pointed out the lease terms to him, he refused to change his mind. Eventually, Morrissey’s father, who is a lawyer, had to step in and show the landlord he was wrong.
“It’s frustrating whenever you don’t get taken seriously for something you know you’re right about. Without my dad, we wouldn’t have had the same outcome,” Morrissey said. “We would’ve been bullied into deep cleaning our apartment so the landlord wouldn’t have had to pay cleaners.”
Another UW alumna, Abby Schaefer, faced a similar situation her sophomore year. Schaefer’s apartment was extremely cold during winter, and their heater didn’t work that well. Her landlord came to check the thermostat, concluded the apartment’s two external walls were responsible and told Schaefer and her roommates they “couldn’t do anything about it.”
The father of one of Schaefer’s roommates was not satisfied with the landlord’s inaction and researched tenant rights and laws. He found that apartment buildings had to be kept at at least 67 degrees Fahrenheit, which was above what her landlord maintained. After her roommate’s father “threatened” the landlord with their rights, Schaefer received space heaters and had their part of the electricity bill paid for.
“I think landlords tend to take advantage of those who haven’t lived on their own, are new to the area or are renting for the first time,” Schaefer said. “[Landlords] say that ‘this is how it’s supposed to go,’ but it’s not.”
Students unaware of tenant laws, rights
In addition to being inexperienced, student renters are often unaware of tenant laws and their rights. These laws also tend to change frequently in Madison, which makes them even more difficult to keep up with, Ald. Zach Wood, District 8, said.
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“There are a number of first-time renters who don’t fully understand what their rights are,” Wood said. “This is further complicated by continued revisions to tenant protections by the state.”
Though the process took a while, Morrissey attributes her success to her awareness of tenant rights and resources. Morrissey believes many student renters forgo taking action because they don’t know what to do and they’d rather let it go.
“As an international student I was afraid that if I did anything wrong, no matter how small it was, I could lose my status at the university.”Shyamal Anadkat
UW senior Codie Heinemann is one renter who felt this way. When her landlord at Skylight Apartments began making “uncomfortable” remarks about women and charging her and her roommates more money for utilities than their lease specified, she didn’t want to pursue the matter. Though she knows she would win the case if she did, Codie Heinemann said she could become a target and possibly lose her security deposit.
“We figured let’s not take it any further because it could hurt us down the road,” Codie Heinemann said. “But it’s one of those frustrating things that if we’re expected to follow the lease then why not them?”
UW senior Shyamal Anadkat said his junior year landlord JSM threatened to evict him and his roommates multiple times for not keeping the apartment clean. But Anadkat said it felt like JSM was “picking on them for every little thing” and didn’t even clean the apartment before handing it over to him. He said they didn’t listen to any of his cleaning requests at the beginning of move-in either.
When given a choice to take action, Anadkat said he felt like he had no rights and that he was simply being ignored. Like Codie Heinemann, he too, was afraid his security deposit would be taken away. Being an international student made the whole process much more difficult.
“As an international student I was afraid that if I did anything wrong, no matter how small it was, I could lose my status at the university,” Anadkat said. “I also didn’t know what more I could do other than what I had already done.”
JSM declined to provide a comment for this article.
Egan said she’s faced frequent inconsistencies when it came to her landlord’s responses. In some cases, her landlord simply overlooked her complaints but took action in others. Egan believes her landlord had gotten accustomed to students renting her properties and now simply regards any negative consequences as “young, college kids having fun.”
“There is no standardization and that’s an issue,” Egan said.
Rowdy college renters pose challenges
While students feel they can be taken advantage of, landlords also face challenges renting to them.
UW alumna Maddie Steinbrenner said students might not be as concerned with being careful because college housing has low expectations and people only stay for a year or two. Egan said it’s possible many students think it’s alright to act how they want because the living space is for young people.
People in the apartment above Egan’s urinated in their balcony, which eventually dripped into hers. After getting it professionally cleaned twice, she took the matter to her landlord who asked for proof in the form of pictures. The landlord refused to take action without this proof, which Egan said would be impossible and indecent to obtain.
Maggie Heinemann said some of her neighbors are noisy and run through the hallways, which can be a nuisance for landlords to deal with. In another scenario, she was touring an apartment and saw one of its tenants had 15 guinea pigs living there. While the apartment was looked after, the room smelled bad and needed a disclaimer from the property manager that the house would be cleaned between move outs.
“I think a lot of people keep [apartments] dirty sometimes and when landlords are walking through, they have to navigate that,” Maggie Heinemann said.
Madison landlord Dennis Martin said the most trouble he’s faced with his tenants is with late rent payments. But he said he’s flexible with them because he’s a smaller landlord.
Lewis said sometimes they get noise complaints. But a majority of students are receptive to notices and warnings. She said parental involvement can also be an issue because when students have a problem, they tend to go through their parents rather than communicate directly with property managers.
But for most part, their relationship with students has been good, Lewis said.
“We love student renters. It’s fun, it’s always changing,” Lewis said. “We like to throw events so they know we appreciate them. We know school is stressful because a lot of us in the office have been through it too so we definitely see where they’re coming from.”
Efforts to raise renter awareness
Wood said raising awareness is the first step landlords and UW can take to help student renters know what they have to do. If students are aware of their options and rights early on, it’ll reduce their likelihood of being manipulated.
UW Housing spokesperson Brendon Dybdahl said in an email to The Badger Herald that every year, house fellows host programs to share information with residents about moving to non-UW housing. Because the idea of moving can be stressful for freshmen, UW Housing, Campus Area Housing Office and the Tenant Resource Center co-host a series of workshops on second-year housing to educate students about their choices for sophomore year.
Martin said he likes to give his tenants a few days to look over the lease before discussing it with them. That way, they get enough time to understand it and ask him questions. Hoff said Palisade follows a similar process.
“With a lease, you’re reading a lot of heavy material so I like to give [tenants] three to five days and email the lease to them in advance so they have time to read it,” Martin said.
Madison Property Management Marketing Director Hannah Kimyon said in an email to The Badger Herald that the company takes efforts similar to Martin’s. She said MPM understands renting for the first time can be overwhelming, which is why they provide frequent online and in-person opportunities to talk to students about the entire leasing process.
Property managers also take time to sit down and go through the lease word-by-word with students before they sign on, Lewis added. That helps them break down the complicated text more easily.
“You have to read a lot of things on your own. It’s more about taking the initiative and time to do that.”Maddie Steinbrenner
Another topic of contention for students is their security deposit. Several student renters are afraid they won’t get this deposit back if they report an issue. Hoff said every tenant has the freedom to care for their apartment as they wish and if they care for it properly, they’ll get their full deposit back.
Lewis suggested students “nitpick” at every part of their apartment when they move in and make a note of everything that is potentially broken so they’re not blamed for it later. Renters can always negotiate with the landlord in case they’re dissatisfied with their deposit return.
Organizations like the Tenant Resource Center can also be a helpful resource for students and inexperienced renters alike. The resource is accessible online and keeps up to date with legislative changes. Konon, Schaefer and Morrissey all found it to be useful when addressing their complaints.
Codie Heinemann said she would’ve liked to know about resources like the Tenant Resource Center before she signed a lease for the first time. Schaefer agreed and said it was “disappointing” her landlord would’ve left them cold if someone who knew their rights and knew where to get information hadn’t stepped in.
Steinbrenner said her landlords had always sat down and explained major lease terms to her carefully, which was helpful. But she also emphasized that students need to take time and initiative to read through their leases and research their rights if they don’t know them.
“You have to read a lot of things on your own,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s more about taking the initiative and time to do that. I was more serious about it when looking for apartments and it helped me.”
UW alum Kevin Castro, who has formerly held positions at The Badger Herald, echoed Steinbrenner’s sentiment. Castro lived in a JSM apartment in his junior year and had taken pictures of the place before moving out in case the company had any complaints.
A few weeks later, JSM contacted Castro and his roommates, saying they’d found broken and unclean items in their old apartment. Castro showed them the pictures and asked JSM for their evidence, but the company said they weren’t “legally obliged” to show their tenants any images.
JSM would’ve taken Castro and his roommates to the small claims court if they didn’t pay the fine. That’s when his roommate filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and told JSM they were ready for legal action. JSM backed down and returned their full security deposit, Castro said.
Castro said his and his roommate’s research helped them work through this “messy” process. Though it took some time, it helped them avoid financial and legal responsibility for something they didn’t do. Another UW senior Brendan Konon also found it useful to do this when his landlord refused to allow his emotional support animal to live in his apartment even after his therapist verified his need for it.
“If you’re getting screwed over by your landlord, I’d encourage people to do their research and figure out their options,” Castro said. “If you fight back even a little, you can work your way out, or at least come to a better solution.”