Understanding tenants' rights

By Melissa Prentice

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Last March, Valerie Coats and her roommate paid a $200 deposit and made a verbal contract to move into a local apartment complex Aug. 1.

Over the summer, the apartment complex called to confirm that she and her roommate would be moving in Sept. 1.

"I laughed and asked if they were joking," she says.

Unfortunately, they weren't.

The apartment complex manager told her roommate's parents that there were no vacant apartments, so the students would not be guaranteed a place in August, September or even October unless the tenants moved out.

"At that point we basically had no place to live," she says. "All the other apartments and dorms were full and school was about to start."

Her roommate's father contacted a lawyer, who suggested the complex pay for the girls to live in a hotel until they could find an apartment, as well as additional money for suffering and inconvenience.

Coats and her roommate were notified that an apartment would be available Aug. 19, almost three weeks after the date they initially planned to move in.

But their ordeal still wasn't over. When Coats and her roommate signed the lease, they were told they would be given a year lease, rather than the nine-month lease originally promised. The students threatened a lawsuit to get the landlord to agree to what they thought was the original arrangement.


Many University of Arizona students face problems similar to what Coats and her roommate experienced during the summer. About a third of the students who go to ASUA's Legal Services each month need help settling disputes with landlords, says Susan Ferrell, the lawyer at the service.

Anyone in Coat's situation should get his or her security deposit back and look for a new residence immediately, she says.

In some similar cases, tenants can sue in small claims court and force the landlord to let them live there, but Ferrell says juries are reluctant to kick out an innocent third party. Also, it probably wouldn't be pleasant to live in a complex where the landlord was angry at the tenant for legal trouble, she says.

According to the Arizona Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, a student could take the landlord to small-claims court and request reimbursement for moving fees or the cost of staying in a hotel until another living arrangement was found, Ferrell says.

The Tenant Act is designed to "simplify, clarify, modernize and revise the laws governing rental.and the rights and obligations of landlord and tenant."

"Most students don't know very much about being a tenant and know very little, if anything, about their rights under the Landlord-Tenant Act," says Ann Wolnick, assistant director of the UA Center for Off-Campus Students, adding that 81 percent of UA students live off campus.

Recently, the center published the second edition of its Renter's Handbook, which provides students with information on issues ranging from roommate or landlord problems to tenant responsibilities.

"Most students see living in an apartment as an exciting change, a big plus of being on their own and not having anyone to tell them what to do," she says. "They don't think about the other side, about all the responsibilities they will have that their parents used to take care of."


Some of the responsibilities belong to the landlord, rather than the student ִ but some landlords don't fulfill those responsibilities.

UA student Iman Atiyeh's swamp cooler didn't work for most of the summer, and after her landlord tried to fix it once, he refused to try to fix it again when she and her roommate continued to complain.

Atiyeh replaced the cooler pump herself, which solved the problem, but she was unaware of a stipulation in the lease which states that tenants are responsible for the cost of any repairs they make themselves.

"Under the Landlord-Tenant Act, landlords have an obligation to do repairs, especially when the problem deals with heating and cooling," says Paul Gattone, a lawyer at the People's Law Center. "They can't just choose not to do it if they don't have money that month; it's an obligation."

Tenants can't withhold rent until repairs are made, Gattone says. If they do, they can be found in breach of contract and


face eviction.

Tenants should request repairs in writing and deliver the letter with a witness or by certified mail, Gattone says. If the landlord does not make repairs within 10 days, or sooner in an emergency, the tenant can hire a licensed contractor if the total cost is below $150, he says. The cost of the repairs can be deducted from the next month's rent.

If the problem affects the health or safety of the tenants, they can draft a written notice informing the landlord that they will move out in 14 days if the repairs are not made within 10 days, Gattone says. If the repairs are not made, the lease becomes legally nonbinding and the tenant can move out.

The most common landlord-tenant problems Ferrell helps students deal with involve students like Atiyeh, whose landlords aren't maintaining the premises. Other common problems involve students who want to break their lease and students who have problems regarding security deposits, she says.

"A tenant really can't break their lease without consequences," Ferrell says.

If the tenant moves out early, the landlord is obligated to try to rent the house or apartment to someone else as soon as possible, she says. The tenant pays only the money the landlord loses before re-renting the apartment.

"The first thing I usually suggest is that the student goes to talk to the landlord," she says. "A lot of times something can be worked out with (him or her)." However, if an agreement cannot be made and the tenant refuses to pay, the landlord can file a suit and can file a claim against the tenant's credit record.

When a tenant moves out, the security deposit should be repaid entirely or the landlord must provide an itemized statement of the damages within 14 days, Ferrell says. If the landlord does not comply, the tenant can sue in small claims court for up to twice the amount of the deposit.


"I just don't feel safe here anymore," says Andrea, a UA finance junior, about her apartment complex.

Andrea says someone tried to break into her apartment ִ she hasn't informed the manager of the incident yet ִ and her friend's car was stolen while parked at the complex.

Her apartment managers recently circulated a letter informing residents that a woman was raped on the premises.

The complex lacks adequate lighting or a security guard to monitor the premises, she says, and she was not informed about these problems until after she had moved in and signed a lease.

Under the Landlord-Tenant Act, landlords are only required to ensure that the premises are free of physical hazards and are not specifically required to ensure other types of security, Ferrell says. However, she says many landlords provide safety lighting and security guards or gates.


Landlords also have their share of problems dealing with student tenants, say two near-campus apartment managers.

"The most common problem is when tenants throw parties and leave beer bottles laying around and sometimes when they get really crazy they throw furniture in the the pool," said Sandee Butz, the manager of Casa Espana and Casa Royale Apartments.

"They often also have a problem getting their garbage all the way to the dumpster and it ends up right outside their doors."

Many student tenants are irresponsible, says Norma Scholl, the regional supervisor for Arizona Commons Apartments.

"Seventy percent of the tenants aren't responsible," she says. "They never had to carry through with things when they lived at home and it carried over into when they moved out. Thirty percent are great, but the other 70 percent are just really hard to deal with."

"If you send out a notice, the chances of the tenant reading it are about 10 percent. Then they come in screaming at us when they make mistakes, like when their car gets towed because they didn't pay attention when we warned them."

But other landlords believe students are above-average tenants. "We have fewer problems with students than anyone else. Students are usually busy working, studying and trying to go to school and are too busy to cause a lot of problems," says Yvonne Litviak, the manager at Rancho Montana Apartments.

Tenants must also fulfill their share of responsibilities: paying rent on time, keeping the apartment and common areas clean and avoiding damages or disturbances.

The Renter's Handbook suggests good communication with landlords to reduce problems. It also suggests that tenants write all communication with the landlord and keep records, including the lease, repair requests, security deposit disputes, dates and times they tried to contact the landlord and all other letters to or from the landlord. Sample letters are included in the handbook.

"The most frustrating problems occur when tenants cannot document grievances. It is easier to negotiate a solution with the landlord when you have written records that show the extent of the problem," the handbook states.

Tenants also need to remember to notify the landlord in writing that they do not plan to renew their lease 30 days before their lease expires, Wolnick says.


Ferrell says the most important thing to do before signing a lease is read it and question anything that is unclear.

"Make sure all the blanks are filled in; don't rely on the landlord to fill in what you thought you agreed on."

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