By Shawna Leader
Ah, spring. The weather is better, and a sense of optimism fills the air. These days, however, a lot of students have more than blue skies on their minds. People are on the move and whether it’s to a place down the street or across town, students may have questions concerning their status as renters. That’s why, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6 in Fraser 4, the AS ROP Legal Info Center (LIC) is presenting “Renters Have Rights: What You Should Know Before You Sign a Lease.”
“Students don’t know near enough about their rights and when you don’t know your rights, you can’t enforce them, you can’t demand them,” Jake Lunden, LIC coordinator, said. “You can’t enjoy rights you don’t know you have. Students lose out a lot in terms of, not only money, but time and stress that are better spent toward their time here at Western than worrying about their homes.”
Two attorneys from local nonprofit law firms will speak at the event, Lunden said. These firms typically take on a lot of cases involving low-income people that have landlord and tenant problems, he said.
“They basically know all the laws when it comes down to renting…they’ve seen it all and they know it all and they’re the best in town to give advice on the subject,” Lunden said.
According to Lunden, the event will cover everything a student renter needs to know before signing a lease. This includes what to look for in a rental unit, students’ rights and responsibilities as tenants, what do if roommates need to move out or a pipe bursts and how to get your deposit back without getting unfairly charged for damages. Finally, the presentation will provide information about local resources for renters.
“We want to offer both relevant information and practical solutions,” Lunden said.
Janice Holmes, a local attorney who runs a landlord/tenant clinic through LAW (Legal Assistance by Whatcom) Advocates, will be speaking at the event. Student renters often run into problems because they are not aware of their rights or what the landlord’s obligations are, she said.
“The issues I see [that renters] are having [is] difficulty getting their deposit back or getting the landlord to fix something,” Holmes said.
Stephen Gockley, a senior attorney at the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), will also be speaking at the event. Although his office has not dealt with a large number of students, that doesn’t mean they aren’t running into issues, he said.
“Students would have at least their fair share of rental problems and maybe more than their fair share,” Gockley said. “Their relative inexperience in business interactions, the usual short-term nature of their tenancies and their general financial constraints can all be factors that make them more vulnerable in these situations.”
To find out about tenants’ rights, Lunden suggested going to washingtonlawhelp.org and looking up the Washington State Landlord/Tenant Act. By familiarizing themselves with the document, students can be aware of their rights and obligations, as well as their landlord’s, when signing a lease, he said.
“Students need to know that renting is a legal contract and that both landlords and tenants need to hold up their end of the bargain,” Lunden said. “At the same time, students need to know [that] in Washington state we have really strong tenants’ rights. Students need to know that they have rights and they need to know their resources.”
One of the most important things students need to do is read the lease and know what the requirements are, Holmes said. Documentation of any interaction that involves damage or the condition of the rental unit is also important, she said.
According to Gockley, renters need to realize their role in the lease agreement in order to have a more positive experience as tenants.
“All renters need to know what they can rightfully expect from a landlord and what a landlord can rightfully expect from them,” he said. “They need to appreciate that they have been entrusted with another person’s significant financial investment and that they bear a joint responsibility for maintaining that investment appropriately. If they can adequately fulfill their responsibilities to the landlord and the property, they will usually have fewer troubles and they will have a better chance of working out any problems that arise, as some inevitably do.”
Students should attend the event because knowing about renting rights and responsibilities will help in the future, Gockley said. Legal problems with landlords are not only expensive and time consuming, but landlords are also frequently conducting background checks on potential renters. A bad landlord-tenant experience could limit future housing options, he said.
Lunden, like Gockley, suggested attending the event and becoming familiar with student tenants’ rights in order to prevent problems in the future.
“Almost all of us rent and a tiny bit of research ahead of time can save hours of heartache down the road,” he said.