By Stephen Gruber-Miller
The College held its first informational panel on off-campus living last Tuesday, intended to aid students in the decision and process of moving off campus and navigating problems with landlords and undesirable conditions in houses.
The panel was organized by Director of Residence Life and Orientation Andrea Conner and Director of Community Enhancement & Engagement Monica Chavez-Silva.
A property owner, building inspector and lawyer were all included in the panel, as were Police Chief Dennis Reilly and Fire Chief Dan Sicard. Conner said she wanted students to learn more about Grinnell’s process for approving students to live off campus and to know what their rights and responsibilities are as renters. Also spurring the conversation were the concerns several parents expressed about fire safety and other maintenance issues on the parents’ email list at the beginning of the semester.
“One of the motivations of the panel … is to better educate students about their rights as renters to things like inspections,” Conner said.
She mentioned fire safety, interaction with neighbors and liability for serving alcohol as other areas of focus for the panel.
During the panel, some students brought up concerns they had with their landlords, including that they can be slow to take action and solve problems in the house. One student said that their landlord sprayed their house to remove pests but did not tell them.
Another student mentioned that old houses have maintenance problems and the landlord was not always able to help. “We had some issues with house keys and locking the front door and [the landlord] just brushed us off about that.”
The student said the landlord was good about fixing their most pressing issues, but that it was hard to know which issues are the tenants’ responsibilities and which are the landlords’.
The panel emphasized the importance of having a lease because it lays out clear guidelines for landlord-tenant relationships and offers security for the renters living there. “Read the lease,” said one panel member. “If there isn’t one, run.”
Withholding rent to get the landlord’s attention was mentioned as another option. However, there are good landlords as well as bad. The most important thing is for college students to investigate a home before they rent it. It is not the College’s job to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants, Conner said.
Building inspections and fire safety were also touched on. Sicard, the fire chief, reminded students that renters have the right to ask for inspections and the fire department will check to make sure smoke detectors are working and that the house is safe.
Off-campus parties were also brought up in the context of being a good neighbor. The panel informed students that hosts can be liable for supplying alcohol to underage drinkers or for noise complaints. They said that the solution was to use common sense, not get too loud and let neighbors know when there will be parties.
Conner hopes that the panel will be the beginning of an increased effort by the College to support off-campus students and educate them about living on their own. A brochure about living off-campus was handed out at the panel and Conner hopes that it will soon be distributed more widely.
One senior was surprised that Grinnell hasn’t done more in the past to help students transition to off-campus living. However, he realizes that off-campus housing is the student’s responsibility. “The College doesn’t need to be hands-on with the kids who choose to live off campus,” he said.
“It’s really good to bring those professional opinions in, because they’re the kind of people that students probably wouldn’t approach,” said another senior living on Broad Street.
The panel provided an opportunity for the town to inform students about what services are available to them. Reilly, the Police Chief, expressed his support for the College. “The town is here to support every resident of Grinnell, college students included,” he said.
However, at the end of the day, Reilly said it is up to students to take responsibility. “There’s a lot of resources here for the students to tap into. Tap into them,” he said.