Rutgers, West Virginia and Tulane Universities say their student legal services departments are kept busy by tenant/landlord disputes. Rutgers reports 40.7% of all student cases involve a landlord while West Virginia and Tulane say “thousands.”
“About 80% to 85% of all cases we handle are of that type,” says Carrie Showalter, the managing attorney of West Virginia University’s student legal services. “Morgantown is sort of known as the place where students just don’t get their security deposits back, and there are some landlords that certainly live that reputation.”
States decide landlord/tenant laws, though it’s common across the board for an itemized list of damages to be provided if and when a security deposit is not returned. Landlords typically have 30 days after a tenant moves out to contact the tenant about the deposit, and all security deposits must be kept in a separate bank account, clear of personal funds.
Though laws exist to protect renters, Gregory Nichols, a civil law attorney at Tulane, says it makes sense for landlords to go against the law and claim security deposits, but he wouldn’t say it’s the right thing to do.
“When you have punitive fines that aren’t very stringent – say $200 – it makes financial sense to keep a $500 security deposit,” Nichols says. “And in a lot of cases, students have moved away, so they are not even in town – or in state – to take a landlord to court, leaving them scot-free.”
Take such a situation, multiply it by 20 tenants, and you realize the money to be made, Nichols says. He says if something could be done to intensify penalties for landlords, more security deposits would be returned.
Lions Gate Apartments in State College, Pa., where Pennsylvania State University is based, adheres to a reliable procedure after move-out, says Claire Weaver, an assisting leasing agent for Lions Gate. She says the company has a better system in place and is generally more responsible than a lone landlord. A majority of Lions Gate’s tenants, according to her, receive their deposits back.
Weaver admits there are prominent security deposit issues at State College.
“It just depends on the landlord,” she says.
Ryanne Ball, a WVU law student, says her first renting experience cost her a $500 security deposit. She says she did nothing against the terms of her lease, yet Ball never received a reason why the deposit was withheld. She says some landlords may have it too easy.
“Landlords see kids, and they see an opportunity,” Ball says. “They know students won’t fight back because they more than likely don’t have the resources.”
The Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit, unincorporated association, passed the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a model law, in 1972 as a way to provide a resource, but “for whatever reason,” only 21 states have adopted it, says Ben Orzeske, a member of the legislative council for the Uniform Law Commission.
“Some states just like their own laws better,” he says.
The commission is revising the document. Revisions include a clause that “a tenant is entitled to a return and an additional amount” along with court fees if he or she sues a landlord and wins. These are all “proposed” amendments to the act, but Orzeske hopes the updated act will eventually serve more states.
A grass-roots approach is underway in Morgantown, W.Va. Jordan Lomis, a third-year WVU law student, plans to offer students a new resource in legal aid with his start-up My Morgantown Security Deposit (MyMSD). He and partner Joe Fabie will provide unbiased documentation of apartments’ conditions, represent students in need of legal action and act as a general liaison between landlord and tenant.
Lomis says the West Virginia Legislature played its part by passing a bill in 2011 specifically geared toward security deposits. He says landlords and tenants must take responsibility, and he feels it’s important to not simply vilify landlords.
“It won’t help establish the relationship you may want with your landlord,” Lomis says. “Plus, not all of them are bad, and it would be counterproductive to perceive them as so.”
Ball, MyMSD’s first client come fall 2013, says student renters should confront landlords who wrongfully claim security deposits. She respects what Lomis and Fabie are trying, and she says more efforts like these are needed.
“One student on their own isn’t going to do anything,” she says. “But I feel like if there were more organized efforts, a change would occur.”
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