University Tenants Union housing portal shut down for violating advertising policies, but ruling eliminates student complaints against landlords

Last year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign quietly shut down an online portal that compiled a database of student complaints against area landlords and landlord responses to those complaints.

The site, called Housing Explorer, which also listed rental property listings, was shut down last June after the spring semester.

A year ago, Dana DeCair, assistant dean of students for the Office of Off-Campus Community Living, said the office had focused on rental education, tenant safety and settlement. reliable relationships with owners and that the site put owners on the “defensive.”

But more recently, a university official said the site was taken down because it violated the university’s advertising policies.

Robin Kaler, associate chancellor of public affairs, said in an email interview this month that the site was taken down because it violated campus website advertising rules and it was too much work to maintain the complaints section.

If students wanted to get specific information about complaints against owners in Champaign, they would now have to take to social media, where owners sometimes pay students for good reviews, or file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA ) with the town of Champaign. . A recent CU-CitizenAccess request for complaint data found that there had been an average of 161 per year since 2015.

DeCair said Housing Explorer was originally created to generate income for the office while providing resources for students. She explained that there were many factors that contributed to the stopping of the resource.

“When Housing Explorer was created, the off-campus community life staff was much larger,” she said. “There were a number of full-time employees dedicated to work. Over the years they’ve kind of reduced that and there has been some restructuring. Now it is under the aegis of the deans of student offices and legal services.

In addition, the resource was detrimental to the alliances the office had with the owners.

“[Complaints] would put owners on the defensive. It wasn’t really about building relationships the way we wanted. We only had about three properties on site, ”DeCair said.

But Kaler said: “The Housing Explorer portal was taken down in June 2020 because it violated Campus Administrative Manual (CAM) policy and rental property information was available through other online sources,”

Either way, students now have to use social media to research the owners’ story. Or, because Champaign doesn’t post complaints online against landlords, students could submit an Freedom of Information request to the city – which CU-Citizen Access did this fall.

A review of city data from 2015 to 2021 found that there is an average of 161 complaints reported per year by tenants in Champaign. The complaints detail problems with mold, pest infestations, lack of heat and many other poor housing conditions.

The University of Illinois Off-Campus Community Living suggests that students use sites such as Google Reviews, Yelp, the U of I’s Reddit page, or the Better Business Bureau to draw their own conclusions about companies from leasing on campus.

But few leasing companies are accredited by the Better Business Bureau, and the process of finding information on Google Reviews, Yelp, and Reddit takes time.

In addition, the information collected on social networks may not be an accurate representation of the tenant‘s experience. In several cases, online reviews have mentioned that their rental company offers a discount in exchange for a good review, which diminishes the credibility of these sources.

“Housing Explorer had two sides: advertising properties and dealing with landlord complaints,” Kaler said. “Someone noticed earlier this year that the advertising side was violating the Sponsorship and Advertising section in campus publications which has been in place since June 23, 2015.”

She added, “When we notice a situation like this, we try to resolve it as quickly as possible. Updating the Explorer claim part was taking a long time, and since information is available from other sources and since we continue to advocate for students when they have issues with owners, we have put end to all HE (Housing Explorer).

The Policy on Sponsorships and Advertising in Campus Publications states that “campus units may accept sponsorships, acknowledge, or accept advertisements or advertising in campus publications only in accordance with this policy and applicable procedures. “.

When asked if academic staff are aware that suggested resources such as social media are unreliable, Associate Chancellor Kaler replied, “Yes. These systems may be incomplete, but we always help students with landlord issues, advocate for them with landlords, and provide a connection to campus and community resources for help.

The University provides students with certain resources regarding tenant rights and housing options. However, it is not known how many students know they have access to these services.

Bashi Mandava, a recent University of Illinois graduate, described the process of finding an apartment on campus as “quite stressful.”

“I was not very aware of my rights as a tenant,” Mandava said. “It takes time and research to look at these things and most students already have a list of other things to do each week that are very difficult to find the time to do. I wish the university would provide more access to small size classes or videos that explain our rights to us, I think that would benefit a lot of students.

She noted several factors that student renters should consider.

“There are a lot of factors to consider as you can imagine,” she said. “Rent, site security, proximity to campus, experiences of previous tenants, etc.” and it is often difficult to get a good representation of the place as a whole online, especially during the pandemic. “

Many students express similar concerns about finding apartments because it is a daunting task.

Esther Patt, former director of the CU Tenants Union, said that while students may not be aware of the resources provided, they are still there, and it is up to each student to seek them out and be diligent when looking for apartments.

But Patt added, “I think it’s critical that students have a way to distinguish bad owners from good owners, especially now that a small number of large companies and several out-of-town companies dominate the market. . Ten years ago there were many more BONS small homeowners in the campus area.

While Patt said it would be ideal to have a resource for all housing needs, she said the reality of the situation is that “everyone wants a place that has all of this information, but it doesn’t. there isn’t a single place where all of this information exists “.

While this is an important task, Patt cautions potential tenants that “the less you are in your scrutiny of an apartment before you rent it, the more likely you are to have problems.”

Patt said while working with tenants, “when the students say ‘I don’t have time to shop for an apartment’, I invest the time in advance. ‘”

She said she was concerned that “people will pay a lot more attention to selecting a cell phone plan than selecting an apartment,” and strongly advises tenants to do their best research. their abilities, because it will be their home.

When researching, Patt recommends reading the lease when evaluating landlords. She said,

“One of the biggest mistakes is for people to assume that most of what they think is ‘right’ is a protected legal right,” she said. “Almost all of a tenant’s questions about what is expected of them or what the landlord is responsible for are answered in the lease. ”

For this reason, Patt urges tenants to “make sure the lease includes all the promises you think were made to yourself and doesn’t require anything from you that you don’t like,” she says, “If it doesn’t. is not in the lease, it is not promised to you.

Ciara Johnson also contributed to this story.

Ana Medina / For CU-CitizenAccess

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