Some students seek legal options for issues with off-campus housing. Credit: Ritika Shah / Buckeye TV news director

Some students seek legal options for issues with off-campus housing.
Credit: Ritika Shah / Buckeye TV news director

Mitch Mundy and his roommates were sitting at their home on Chittenden Avenue when the house went dark.

They initially thought a fuse had blown, so one of them went down to the basement to fix the problem.  When that didn’t work, they called their landlord, who Mundy said told them to put on rubber gloves and boots to fix the issue, as they might be dealing with electrical wires. They refused to fix it themselves, Mundy said.

“That’s extremely unprofessional, putting someone’s life in danger,” Mundy, a second-year in psychology, said.

It turns out there really wasn’t any danger, since the wires were dead. Although electricity is included in the roommates’ rent payment, the landlord had forgotten to pay the electric bill.

“I lost about $50 worth of groceries,” Mundy said. The electricity was out for about a day and a half, he said.

This wasn’t the first time Mundy has had trouble with his landlord, who isn’t associated with any larger realty company. Mundy also said he had a broken sink that took weeks to fix.

The landlord did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mundy hasn’t taken legal action against his landlord, and says he doesn’t plan to as long as he and his roommates get their safety deposit back, after their lease is up. He said he fears that they will be held responsible for parts of the house that were damaged before they even moved in.

Students like Mundy do have legal options when it comes to landlords who won’t take care of their houses, said Ben Horne, managing attorney of the Housing Unit at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

“Landlords have a duty to keep rental properties in a fit and habitable condition,” Horne said.

If a repair needs to be made, tenants should notify their landlord in writing and keep a photocopy of the correspondence, he said.

“Then the tenant has to wait a reasonable amount of time, depending on the severity of the problem and the difficulty of the repair, but no more than 30 days,” Horne said.

After 30 days, if the landlord has not made the repair, the tenant can either terminate the lease or open a rent escrow account with the Franklin County Municipal Court, he said.

Rent escrow is a program that allows tenants with outstanding problems in their rental units to deposit rent payments with the Clerk of Courts instead of directly paying their landlords. Landlords will receive these rent payments when they show proof that the repair in question has been made.

“In conjunction with rent escrow, the tenant can ask that the court order that the repair be made, the tenant can ask that his or her periodic rent be reduced … and finally the tenant can ask that the money be released so that the tenant can make the repair,” Horne said.

The best way for tenants to get their situation resolved is to cut off the income to the landlord via rent escrow, Horne said.

“If the tenant starts doing rent escrow, the rental income stream will dry up, and for a lot of these places that own off-campus housing, it’s just a business,” Horne said. “They’re trying to keep it going as cheaply as possible.  As soon as they realize that the rent’s not coming in every month, that’ll probably spur them into action.”

Mundy is not alone in his troubles.  When Samantha Bottoms, a third-year in hospitality management, moved off-campus last year, she was excited to get out of university housing.

When she and her roommates started discovering rats in her Chittenden Avenue home in January, however, off-campus living became considerably less fun, she said.

“The first maintenance person that they sent told us that his biggest fear was actually rats and that he did not know how to set the traps he’d bought from Lowe’s,” Bottoms said. Those traps were later found to be missing bait and therefore ineffective, she said.

The problems didn’t stop there, as basement flooding and poor insulation rounded out the list of housing issues for Bottoms.

She rented from NorthSteppe Realty, which has more than 220 city code violations against them since 2008.

Mike Stickney, the broker at NorthSteppe, said in an email last week that he would look into the case and return comment within 24 hours. He has since not responded to multiple requests for comment as of Wednesday morning.

Bottoms decided in late spring to ask Student Legal Services for help.

“The person I talked to told me I should have started (seeking legal help) earlier,” she said, “which, being a first-time renter, isn’t something that I really thought about, but it makes sense.”

Informing landlords early and leaving a paper trail is key to success in fixing the problem, Horne said.

“It’s important to take the action quickly, but it’s also important to do it in writing,” he said.

Bottoms said she wished she had thought of legal action earlier.

“They (Student Legal Services) gave me all the options that I had at that point,” she said. “He (her Student Legal Services representative) was helpful, but there just wasn’t that much he could do at that point that would be quick and inexpensive.”

Being aware of the options available for tenants under the Ohio Landlord/Tenant Law is important, Horne said.

“Tenants have a lot of rights,” he said. “It’s a matter of educating yourself.”