The University of Wisconsin calls it the “November rush.” It is the push, sudden and fevered, of students to find off-campus housing for the next academic year.
“Renting for Fall” signs flare up across downtown Madison, e-mails flood students’ inboxes, potential renters find flyers in the mail, and in a blur, UW sophomore Kate Tritschler said she is forced to make a decision as apartments are snatched up quickly.
“When we started looking there were tons of options open,” first-time renter Tritschler said. “After a couple days, so many had already been filled. We were like, ‘Oh gosh, if this is the pace that it’s going to go at, we might be kind of stuck.'”
Tritschler and her two friends signed a lease for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment at the Equinox a week into their apartment search. Tritschler said those at the Equinox said a record number of students came in to see apartments and attended the building’s open house. It was the second week of October.
Kari Stopple, an office manager at Madison Property Management, said businesses like MPM who participate in the rush are simply doing their job.
“The demand every year is earlier and earlier, so therefore we have to meet the demand and start leasing earlier,” Stopple said.
Tritschler said her roommates began the search early in part due to the advertisements they were seeing — and actively receiving — from MPM.
“They had been sending tons of e-mails, so we went to the website,” Tritschler said.
The student demand for housing versus the pressure from property owners to sign leases frame an interesting chicken-or-the-egg debate about what perpetuates the housing rush phenomenon. Beyond that question, however, lies another one: why do students rush in the first place, and should they?
Some of the answer traces back to the roots of the rush, said Danielle Tolzmann, program coordinator at UW Visitor and Information Programs. Dating back around 20 years ago, she said, there was a shortage of quality housing close to campus.
“The result was that at the first opportunity there was this rush and panic to secure a place to live for the next year as soon as possible,” Tolzmann said. “You could be essentially on your friend’s couch for the semester or for the year because there just wasn’t enough space to go around.”
Since then, Tolzmann said, property development downtown has completely reversed the situation, with more apartments now available than there are students to fill them. Yet the housing rush culture remains intact.
“I think that part of it is historical,” Tolzmann said. “I think part of it is that it has simply become a tradition that in November that the current first year students are seeing signs up from the large management companies that read ‘Sign now before they’re all gone.'”
Stopple said that 50 to 60 percent of MPM’s apartments are filled by the winter break, and she recommends that students continue to look early.
“Generally, if they want a specific apartment or a larger apartment, they’re going to look early,” Stopple said. “If they want the prime location and the prime apartment, they’re definitely going to sign before Christmas.”
Executive Director of Madison Tenant Resource Center Brenda Konkel said the rush may be more to the benefit of property owners than anyone else. Konkel works closely with student renters, watching them file in and out of the organization’s Williamson Street building to consult with housing counselors on everything from lease reviews to lease breaking.
“I think landlords like it because they sort of get all their business done early and don’t have to worry,” Konkel said. “But what we see on the other end of it then is a lot people end up having to get out of their leases for one reason or another.”
UW junior Michael Egly did not want to take that chance. Facing pressure from friends to sign a lease in the fall, Egly took himself out of the rushing game completely.
“We signed, I want to say, sometime towards the end of March,” said Egly, who shares a spacious apartment on the first floor of an old house on West Washington Avenue with three other guys.
Waiting to start his housing search, Egly said, was the right decision for him.
“I’m really happy with the roommates that I have and the house that I’m in right now,” Egly said. “The location works really nice for me. It is a little farther from campus than some people, but I enjoy the walks.”
He’s happy with the price as well, which totals about $375 per month plus the cost of utilities.
For Tritschler, the price is the one thing about her new Equinox apartment that she does not like. Though her utilities are included, Tritschler pays $608 per month.
“Definitely we were hoping for some cheaper places,” Tritschler said with a pointed laugh. “A lot of places that were significantly cheaper had already been leased out.”
Konkel said property management companies often determine pricing based on the rush.
“Because there’s a lot of demand, the landlords charge more,” Konkel said. “If you wait longer, sometimes you’ll see an apartment will be a couple hundred dollars a month cheaper if you wait until the spring.”
Stopple said MPM’s prices do fluctuate, “depending on location, size, time of year.”
Another facet of the rush is the pressure to renew leases sometimes as early as October, before students can decide whether or not the heat works in the winter or their roommates are compatible. Konkel said city alders in the past proposed a six-month waiting rule on property managers, which was then whittled down to three months in policy.
“For awhile, it did say pretty strictly you couldn’t do it until a quarter of the lease was over with, but then it sort of got modified over time, it sort of got weakened,” Konkel said.
Ald. Bridget Maniaci, District 2, proposed increasing the quarter-lease rule to a half-lease rule, resurrecting the old six month proposal.
Maniaci introduced a proposal to go back to the six month waiting rule, although it would take effect until March 1. It has just started going through the city committee process, and the Landlord and Tenant Issues Subcommittee will review the proposal and make a recommendation to its parent entity, the Housing Committee.
Ald. Bryon Eagon, District 8, is currently working with officials to develop a three-pronged approach intended to help ease tensions between student tenants and landlords. It includes components of education, mediation and fines for property owners who fail to comply with agreements.
“Every year there’s thousands and thousands of students signing their first lease, so educating the students on their rights and responsibilities and also providing an avenue for them if they have questions or concerns about that process is a good step,” Eagon said.
For Tolzmann’s part, she said she believes the rush phenomenon may be turning a corner. This year she has received more calls than in the past from students and parents confused about the mixed messages from property managers and the University of Wisconsin. The questions, Tolzmann said, have catalyzed a slow but increasingly prevalent change in attitude.
“This year, I’m starting to get a sense that some students are heeding the message and are making more thoughtful renting choices and are waiting out November,” Tolzmann said.
Egly agreed waiting is the best policy and has made all the difference in the way he lives now.
“It shouldn’t be something stressful,” Egly said. “If picking the house is stressful, the living situation is probably not going to be all that less stressful.”