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Leaks, loopholes and absent landlords: Chapel Hill housing leaves students vulnerable

Student housing in Chapel Hill is often rundown and inadequately cared for. Tenant turnover and unresponsive landlords make repairs and renovations tough to nail down.

Student housing in Chapel Hill is often rundown and inadequately cared for. Tenant turnover and unresponsive landlords make repairs and renovations tough to nail down.

Mercho said the burglars entered the house through the basement door, which was locked on the renters’ side but unlocked from the basement itself. Through an open basement window, they gained entrance to the rest of the house.

Mercho said she and her housemates had no way of knowing the door was unlocked — their landlord had never mentioned it.

She said their items were stolen due to the owner’s negligence.

Mercho also said the rental management company, Dunlap Lilley Properties Inc., refused to give them the name of the owner of the house, and they were never able to contact him during the police investigation.

“Our rental manager was kinda useless ... he just, he did a lot of talking and he wasn’t very direct,” she said. “We had heard bad things about Dunlap Lilley in the past, after we signed the lease but before we moved in.”

Jim Lilley, president of Dunlap Lilley, said homeowners hire them specifically to handle issues on their behalf.

“They pay us to take care of the situation,” Lilley said.

But situations like this are difficult for 19- and 20-year-olds to handle, Mercho said. She thinks that’s why owners and property managers act the way they do.

Because many students are first-time renters, they’re often unfamiliar with the loopholes of leasing, what makes for adequate housing or how to handle conflicts when they arise. After a year or less, students move out, more move in and the problems persist.

“It’s just frustrating cause they know they can do this to students, and it’s just not gonna matter,” Mercho said.

Contracts and legal constraints

J. Tristan Routh, a full-time attorney with Carolina Student Legal Services, said landlord-tenant issues are a huge part of what they do in the office — about 40 to 50 percent.

Student fees cover the cost of the office and its three full-time attorneys to provide professional legal advice to UNC students.

“Our office was founded 40 years ago kind of based on the fact that student tenants needed representation to keep landlords from taking advantage of them — that kind of thing,” he said. “So, it is a big, big part of what we do.”

Routh said the office provides legal services for students with landlord-related issues once their lease begins, such as repairs or receiving the security deposit at the end of the year.

Routh also said they urge students to bring in their leases for review before they sign them, because once it’s signed, you’ve entered the contract.

“A lot of people may not really understand what their legal duties and obligations are as a tenant, so it’s important to go through your lease with an attorney,” he said.

Senior Jessie Pongetti said her landlord drops in unannounced — even after she asked him several times for warning — and he refuses to fix broken items.

However, due to the nature of the lease she and her housemates signed, they are having trouble holding the landlord accountable.

“Our contract was so strategically written, there wasn’t really anything we could do about it,” Pongetti said.

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She said while Carolina Student Legal Services was helpful, she was frustrated with the legal system itself.

Taking charge

Senior Alex Cornell doesn’t communicate with her landlord. In fact, she’s never even met her landlord and instead works with the house’s realtor.

Cornell and her friends live on North Street. It’s an ideal location, but with less than ideal living conditions. Leaking sinks and gas lines, rodents and jagged floors have caused problems since move-in day.

“If we had known the house was this bad, we wouldn’t have chosen to live here,” she said. “My roommate just got a splinter the other day because our floors are so bad.”

When she smelled gas in the house, she coordinated with the gas company and the realtor, handling the dangerous situation on her own. She made other small improvements for her own safety.

“When we moved in, there was one smoke detector in the house,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that’s the responsibility of the homeowner, but my dad came in anyway and installed smoke detectors in all our bedrooms.”

Cornell said most of the issues with her house are things they can live with. The lack of a dishwasher, bugs and no disposal are all uncomfortable, she said, but manageable.

“That’s why I think a lot of landlords get away with things,” Cornell said. “I feel like the way a lot of people our age are treated is unfair because of where we live and because we’re students. No one holds them accountable.”

“People sign leases so early here that they just forget to carefully check out the houses.”

University involvement

States away, Molly Labrousse is very familiar with situations like Pongetti and Cornell’s.

Labrousse is program manager for Beyond the Diag, an off-campus housing program within the University of Michigan’s Dean of Students Office established in 2011.

“We were having some really significant issues off campus with armed robberies and sexual assaults that were happening, and students off campus really felt they weren’t supported or connected,” Labrousse said. “It was really student-initiated.”

Modeled after similar programs at the University of Oregon and The Ohio State University, Beyond the Diag hires students as neighborhood ambassadors to educate students about the process of signing a lease and the resources available — both on and off campus — to make sure students transition from dorm living to off-campus living smoothly.

“The education piece is really important because for a lot of first-year students moving off campus, it’ll be their first time signing a contract like this,” Labrousse said.

The program also launched the university’s off-campus housing website in 2013. On the site, students can see what housing is available in the area, compare prices and search for roommates who are also Michigan students.

When students have disagreements or issues with their landlords, they can go to Beyond the Diag’s case management team, who will act as an unbiased third-party to help settle disputes.

“Every time I come into contact with a student and share these resources, the response is always, ‘I wish I would have known about this sooner,’” Labrousse said. “Students are very appreciative we have the resources, that we’re a part of the Dean of Students Office and have the reach we do.”

UNC’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and Community Involvement provides a similar service for off-campus students, starting at the first stages of looking for housing. The office also provides resources such as community newsletters once students make the move.

The office’s director, Aaron Bachenheimer, said it also serves as a resource for students who may need help with a troublesome landlord.

Most times, Bachenheimer said he would refer students to Carolina Student Legal Services, but with some issues, he serves as mediator.

“If a student says, ‘I’m having a hard time communicating with my landlord or getting through to my landlord — would you be willing to help?’ — I would certainly be willing to do that,” he said.

UNC senior Anthony DiGiovanni said his kitchen became nearly unusable last year due to damage done by large rats.

“We had massive rats — so massive they had their own social security numbers, I shit you not,” he said.

It took eight rat invasions in four months and over 15 emails to the landlord for DiGiovanni and his housemates to receive compensation to fix the problem, he said.

Bachenheimer said his office is always available for students with any issues, but he stresses that his job is mainly to educate students before problems arise.

“Most of my job is focused around giving students good information in a more proactive kind of way, so they don’t make bad decisions about roommates or where they’re going to live or signing a lease,” he said.

Third-party property management groups like Mill House Properties follow a set of guidelines that dictates how they conduct business.

Mill House Properties operates under homeowners’ associations and condo owners’ associations, depending on the rental. The North Carolina Real Estate Commission also provides guidelines for the company that dictate whether they keep their real estate license.

Roommates at risk

When Mercho faced the cost of replacing her stolen belongings, she said she saw no legal course of action beyond working with the police.

Due to the town’s occupancy rule, which states that no more than four unrelated people can live in one house, Mercho’s name was not on the lease, and so she did not have renter’s insurance.

“I just don’t want to like waste time and money and get kicked out of my house possibly,” she said.

Students in violation of the occupancy rule face eviction, whether or not the landlord knowingly signed additional tenants.

“If [the town] finds out there are more than four people living in the residence, they can fine the landlord,” Routh said. “But before they start fining them, they give the landlord the chance to fix it.”

Routh said this causes a practical problem for students because they could potentially be kicked off of the lease in the landlord’s attempt to fix the problem.

Six seniors live in Cornell’s small white house on North Street, but only four names are on the lease. Cornell said she and her friends did not have much choice.

“Houses in Chapel Hill are insanely priced,” she said. “So you need more people to help out with the rent.”

But squeezing more people into a house makes it difficult for students to ask for help when problems arise.

“We don’t want to push our luck because there are six of us living here. So we just know that we can’t go to them with a lot of things because we’re worried about that,” Cornell said. “It screws a lot of people because they don’t want to risk themselves getting thrown out, so they don’t say anything.”