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University Tenant Union Housing Portal taken down for violating ad policies, but decision eliminates student complaints against landlords

Ana Medina / For CU-CitizenAccess

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

The site, called Housing Explorer, which also listed ads for rental properties, was taken 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 shifted most of their focus to lease education, tenant safety, and building reliable connections with landlords and that the site put landlords on the “defensive.”

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

Robin Kaler, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs, said this month in an email interview that the site was taken down because it violated campus website advertising rules and that it was too much work to maintain the complaints section.

If students did want to get specific information on complaints against landlords in Champaign, they now would have to go to social media, where landlords sometimes pay students for good reviews, or file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the City of Champaign. A recent request by CU-CitizenAccess for complaint data found there have been an average of 161 a year since 2015.

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

“When the Housing Explorer was created, the off-campus community living staff was much bigger,” she said. “There was multiple full-time staff that was dedicated to the work. Over the years they’ve kind of cut back on that and there’s been restructurings. Now it’s under the umbrella of deans of students’ offices and legal services.” 

In addition, the resource was hurting alliances that the office had with landlords. 

“[Complaints] would put the landlords on the defensive. It wasn’t really building relationships as we wanted. We only had about three properties on the 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 there was information on rental properties that is available through other online sources,”

In any case, students must now resort to social media to research the history of landlords. Or, because the Champaign does not post online complaints about landlords, students could submit a Freedom of Information request to the city – which is what CU-Citizen Access did this fall. 

A review of the city data from 2015 to 2021 revealed that there is an average of 161 reported complaints a year from Champaign renters. The complaints detail issues with mold, pest infestations, no heat, and many other poor housing conditions.

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

But few of the leasing companies are Better Business Bureau accredited, and the process of searching through Google Reviews, Yelp, and Reddit Pages for information is time-consuming. 

In addition, the information collected on social media may not be an accurate representation of the renter’s experience. In several instances, online reviewers mentioned that their rental company offered a discount in exchange for a good review, which diminishes the credibility of these sources.

“Housing Explorer had two sides: advertising properties and addressing landlord complaints,” Kaler said. “Someone noticed earlier this year that the advertising side violated the Sponsorships and Advertising in Campus Publications section which has been in place since June 23 of 2015.” 

She added, “When we notice a situation like that, we try to address it as quickly as possible. Updating the complaint portion of the Explorer was time-intensive, and since information is available from other sources and since we continue to advocate for students when they have concerns with landlords, we ended all of HE (Housing Explorer).” 

The Sponsorships and Advertising in Campus Publications policy states that “Campus units may accept sponsorships, make an acknowledgment, or accept advertisements or advertising in campus publications only in accordance with this policy and the applicable procedures.”

When asked whether university staff are aware that the suggested resources such as social media are unreliable, Associate Chancellor Kaler said, “Yes. These systems can be incomplete, but we still assist students with landlord concerns, advocate for them with landlords, and provide connection to campus and community resources for assistance.”

The University provides students with certain resources surrounding tenants rights, and housing options. However, it is unclear how many students are aware they have access to these services. 

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

“I was not very aware of my rights as a renter,” Mandava said. “It takes time and research to look into these things and most students already have a list of other tasks to get done every week that it’s very difficult to find the time to do this. I do wish the university provided more access to bite-sized courses or videos that walk us through our rights, I think it would benefit a lot of students.”

She noted several factors that student renters need to consider. 

“There are a lot of factors to consider as you can imagine,” she said. “Rent, safety at the location, proximity to campus, previous tenant’s experiences and so on 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 looking for apartments because  it is a daunting task.

Esther Patt, the former director of the C-U Tenant Union, said that although 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 searching for apartments. 

But Patt added: “I do think it’s essential for students to have some way to distinguish the bad landlords from the good, especially now that a small number of large companies and several out-of-town corporations are dominating the market. Ten years ago there were a lot more small-time, GOOD landlords in the campus area.”

While Patt said it would be ideal to have one resource for all housing needs, she said the reality of the situation is that “everyone wants one place that has all this information, but there is not one place where all of this information exists.” 

Even though it is a large task, Patt warns prospective renters that “the less comprehensive you are in your scrutiny of an apartment before you lease it, the more likely you are to have problems.”

Patt said while she was working with tenants, “when students said ‘I don’t have the time to shop for an apartment’ I would say, ‘It’s going to be a lot more time dealing with the problems if you make a mistake, invest the time upfront.’” 

She said she was worried “people give far more scrutiny to selecting a cell phone plan, than they do to selecting an apartment,” and strongly advises renters to do research to the best of their abilities, because this will be their home.

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

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

For this reason, Patt urges renters to “make sure that the lease includes every promise you think was made to you, and doesn’t require anything of you that you don’t like,” she says, “If it’s 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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