Students learn renters’ rights, laws

By Preena Patel / Staff Writer

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Like many Pitt students, Sam Temples is currently looking for a clean, safe and budget-friendly apartment to rent next year but had no idea how to get this place on her own — until Tuesday afternoon.

Temples and 30 other students attended an off-campus student rental workshop on Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Ballroom. The workshop is held every year to inform students about their rights as Pittsburgh residents and help them avoid preventable problems in renting. Kannu Sahni, director of community and governmental relations at Pitt, organized the fourth annual panel discussion.

“I wanted to get information from people who know [about renting], not just friends,” Temples, a sophomore psychology major, said. “I haven’t run into any problems yet, but I’m still pretty new to this. But I felt that the info session better prepared me for this process.”

Sahni attends dozens of community meetings every month and found a recurring issue: students struggle to find basic information about living in the community, such as their right to complain about living situations that violate city housing codes. He organized the panel as a way to provide this information.

“Our students are amazing, such an asset to our community,” Sahni said. “Students have the right to a good quality of life.”

Students sat at round tables in the Ballroom as they listened to the panelists’ advice on frequently asked questions about landlords, leases and lawsuits. They told students who to call if there are health or safety problems with their apartments, how to get their security deposits back and the type of documentation needed to file complaints.

Kevin Stiles, manager of Pitt’s department of property management, discussed the laws regarding how many people can live in one home. Stiles informed the crowd about a city ordinance that states that no more than three unrelated parties can live in one housing unit.

“The history of this ordinance is unclear, but it is enforced,” Stiles said. “It exists to ensure that houses aren’t overpopulated.”

In 2015, the Pitt News reported landlords getting fined for overpopulating rental properties. Judge Eugene Ricciardi fined landlords $200,000 to $650,000 if he found them violating codes. Ricciardi said the large fines were justified because landlords continued to violate the code by overpopulating properties, which imposed safety hazards on tenants.

Sahni also informed the students that landlords will try to go against this ordinance by allowing more than three tenants to rent a home but only putting three of those tenants on the lease. This is a risky situation for students because insurance claims require legal proof of residency.

“If you live in the house, you should be on the lease,” Sahni said.

Along with the legal precautions that should be taken when signing a lease, the panelists discussed the safety precautions that should be taken when living off campus.

Pitt Police Officer Guy Johnson, who has been serving the community relations department for 33 years, addressed student concerns about the 17 burglaries that have occurred over the past few weeks. He said most of the burglaries did not occur by forced entry but by burglars who climbed through unlocked windows or simply walked through open doors.

For landlords who don’t follow through on their legal responsibilities, such as providing a smoke detector on each floor, student tenants should issue complaints. One student in the audience expressed concern about the repercussions for complaining to landlords.

Jeffrey Braun, a panel member representing the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, said that in Pennsylvania, landlords need a legal reason to evict tenants — such as not paying rent. Braun warned the students to do whatever they could to avoid a situation where they are even partially at fault.

“Get all your ducks in a row,” Braun said. “Make sure your landlord doesn’t have anything to use against you when you complain.”

For students who don’t feel ready to face their landlords directly, Alicia Carberry, a panel member representing councilman Daniel Gilman’s office, said students can anonymously file complaints against their landlords through the city’s 311 system, which leaves a paper trail on non-emergency problems in Pittsburgh. After the complaint is filed, the appropriate departments are alerted to deal with the issue.

Carberry also told students about the app MyBurgh, which is a 24/7 resource to the 311 call center. Students can also use MyBurgh to find previous violations on properties before renting them.

“Renting is really fun. Absolutely get to know your neighbors, absolutely get to know your community you live in,” Carberry said. “And keep in mind that it will rock.”

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