Trying to find a place to live near Penn can feel like a no-win situation. On-campus housing is a pricey option for many students on and off financial aid, but all of us have heard the horror stories about off-campus units. As a student looking for housing, especially in West Philadelphia, it is easy to feel like you have to take what you can get: pest problems, broken equipment, unresponsive landlords, and even potentially hazardous conditions are accepted by many Penn students as an inevitable part of the housing process.
While encountering some of these issues is normal, you shouldn’t feel like living off campus means you always have to accept lackluster housing conditions as they are. Being a student, likely one who is renting for the first time, is a vulnerable position to be in. University City landlords are not universally renowned across the board for helpfulness and fairness, and there are people who will try to take advantage of you. But there are federal, state, and local protections in place for the benefit of all renters. While students often aren’t familiar with them, they should be: All Penn students living off campus should know their rights as tenants and be willing to exert them.
Sorting through the extensive legalese of housing policies can be challenging, but the City of Philadelphia and local organizations like Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offer helpful, manageable breakdowns of your responsibilities and rights as a renter. You can’t be discriminated against in housing-related matters based on legally protected categories; you can’t be charged a security deposit in excess of two months’ rent as a first-year tenant in a given property; you can’t be evicted without due process. When you move into a new dwelling, your landlord is supposed to provide you with a copy of the City of Philadelphia’s Partners For Good Housing guide, which details the things Philadelphia landlords have a legal obligation to provide: among them functional smoke alarms, extermination before the leasing period begins (so you don’t have to move into a place with a pest problem), running water and hot water, heating (at least 68 degrees in the fall and winter), and repairs to roofs, ceilings, plumbing fixtures, and so on.
It can be frustrating and even scary to find yourself in a situation where these baseline conditions aren’t being met. But, if you do, you have options. In Philadelphia, you can call 311 and create a case for the city to inspect without the risk of your identity being divulged. Even if they do reason your identity out, your landlord can’t retaliate against you for doing this by raising rent, shutting off utilities, or threatening eviction — they are legally prohibited from doing so. There are many legal resources in Philadelphia who focus on housing concerns, and if your back is ever really up against the wall, utilizing them — or even simply saying that you will — can be a quick way to make change when none has been forthcoming.
I didn’t receive this information when I moved off campus. In fact, I didn’t find it until I searched for it. As much as it would be nice to think that all potential landlords will be helpful in providing you with this information, in many cases it is in the best interest of the people you are renting from to ignore these issues. Building owners in West Philadelphia are not an antagonistic monolith, and some of them are incredibly helpful and kind, but you can’t always count on that to be the case. The only person you can rely on to be an advocate for you is yourself. When it comes to renting, that doesn’t make you difficult or annoying: It makes you an informed tenant.
Renting a house or apartment for the first time is a milestone in the transition to adulthood, and as exciting as it can be, the decidedly adult responsibilities and obligations that come with it can make even the most assertive people feel intimidated and ill-prepared. That’s why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with your rights — and to feel comfortable with using them.
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ANA WEST is a College junior from Spring Lake, Mich. studying English. Her email address is email@example.com.
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