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Slumming It

Rental properties in Tempe aren't always what they seem. Here's how to avoid a legal quagmire and protect yourself from litigious landlords

by Megan Irwin
photo by Andrew Benson

Ken Volk of Arizona Tenants Advocates has been fighting for tenants’ rights since 1993 and is now a known figure in the community.

Kris Olman's last house was no dream house. The roof leaked. On the rare occasion the air conditioner worked, it short-circuited all other electric appliances. The lawn was overgrown.The shower didn't drain. The dishwasher didn't wash.

Basically it was a mess. Definitely not the type of place anyone would willingly want to rent -- unless of course these problems were cleverly hidden until after the lease was signed.

Sounds sneaky, but it happens to students looking for affordable housing in Tempe all the time. For first-time renters, especially students unfamiliar with their rights, finding a place to live in Tempe is like dancing through a minefield blindfolded.

When Bad Landlords Happen to Good Tenants

Olman, a graphic design senior, and his roommates learned the landlord-tenant tango the hard way.

In July 2003, the four men moved into a property at 46 E. 15th St. in Tempe, owned by the well-known rental company Rentals Tempe. Although they had heard some pretty nasty rumors surrounding the companie's reputation, they felt that the benefits of moving into the property outweighed the bad. For one, they knew one of the former tenants of the house, and for another, it was affordable.

The roommates' problems with the house started as soon as they moved in. They signed the lease that had belonged to the former tenant, also a close friend of theirs.

"We made the mistake of signing the old lease, which meant we took responsibility for the condition of it," Olman says. "When we first looked at it, it seemed OK. There were some minor problems but nothing big."

Though they inherited the problems of the house, they did not inherit the cost of rent. Before the roommates signed the lease, Rentals Tempe increased the monthly amount owed by $250. Still, they felt it was a good enough deal to sign and moved in July 1, 2003.

They soon discovered that those "minor problems" were not so minor after all. Among these not-so-minor problems was an air conditioning unit that didn't work in the middle of summer.

"All of the electricity in the house, including the A/C, runs on the same circuit. Every time we ran it, all the other lights in the house would dim. We were always in danger of overloading the circuit," Olman says.

On the day they moved in, the air conditioning unit in Olman's bedroom didn't work because the circuit was blown.

Rentals Tempe sent someone out to fix it. And then promptly sent the roommates a bill for $60.

Olman says he felt it was unfair they were billed for the repair since a properly functioning air conditioning unit ought to be the responsibility of the landlord. David Swain, legal advisor at ASU's free legal service center, agreed with Olman.

"Roof leaks, heater or cooler breakdowns, problems with plumbing -- it's the landlord's responsibility to maintain these things," Swain says.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

For Olman and his roommates, this bill was only the beginning of their problems.

A few months later, in October 2003, plumbing in the house became an issue. The pipes in their bathroom got so backed up that they wouldn't drain, the sink only "trickled out" and the dishwasher only worked under very specific circumstances. They notified Rentals Tempe of the problem and wound up waiting more than a week for a repairman to come by the house.

After the repairs were made, they received yet another bill: $78.75 for the bathtub and sink, and another $25 for the dishwasher.

Figuring there wasn't a whole lot they could do, the roommates paid the bill.

"It was always such a hassle to try and get something fixed," Olman says. "First of all, it takes them forever to get it done, and then they charge you for it when [the problem] is their[the landlord's] fault."

When SPM attempted to reach Rentals Tempe for comment, we were told the office has no official comment. SPM was referred to Rentals Tempe owner Tim Wright, who never responded.

The problems in Olman's house only continued to get worse. When the rainy season hit, the tenants discovered that roommate Alan Luu's bedroom roof leaked.

"It was drooping like four inches," Luu says. "And when you looked at my ceiling, you could see that it was full of cracks."

They complained about it, and Rentals Tempe sent someone to fix it -- eventually. Only Luu says the repairman never did any actual repairs.

"He came and looked at it, said 'Oh well, it's not leaking anymore,' and turned around and left. Of course it wasn't leaking anymore -- it wasn't raining," Luu says.

The roommates then figured that if they wanted to survive their lease, they would have to learn the rules to the game Rentals Tempe was playing.

"Anything you want done, put it in writing," Olman says. "That's one thing we learned."

Roommate Adam Gross agreed with Olman.

"They don't like when you put it in writing. It shows you know how to play the game," Gross says.

Winning the game ... or at least calling it a draw

Ken Volk is a man who knows how to play the landlord-tenant game, if only because he's been at it since 1993. Volk is the man behind Arizona Tenants Advocates, aka "lease busters," and has dedicated his life to helping tenants protect themselves from "the dark depravities of landlords."

Depending on whom you're talking to, Volk is either a hero or a crackpot. In the eyes of the tenants across the Valley, he's a savior. In the eyes of landlords and lawmakers, he's a nuisance at best, completely crazy at worst.

Regardless of his reputation, Volk knows first-hand how tough it is to deal with landlords, and over the years he's gotten quite good at beating the game. He started in 1993 when the roof caved in at his apartment complex, and his landlord didn't do anything about it.

He says he's been working for tenants' rights since then because "it was a real need, and there wasn't anyone else doing it."

With about 25 new cases and 100 follow-up cases currently pending, Volk is a busy man. He works from his home, which is a study in organized chaos. As he discusses lease agreements with his assistant, a black rabbit hops across the living room and into his lap. Volk strokes the rabbit absentmindedly as he goes over his latest pending case.

It is yet another case involving Rentals Tempe.

"With Tim [Wright of Rentals Tempe] you have to expect he's going to litigate anything," Volk says.

But Rentals Tempe is not the only rental agency that students need to be wary of. Volk says that any landlord is potentially dangerous. He says he doesn't see an end to the cycle of landlords taking advantage of their student tenants any time soon.

"I don't hold much hope for any of it -- the law just isn't friendly to tenants. I don't really see a viable solution," Volk says.

He says until state law is changed to protect tenants, the best defense is to remain wary of landlords.

"I have one fundamental caution to tenants -- do not trust your own judgment," Volk says. "Expect to be manipulated. Lots of people want to be goody-two-shoes about things. They don't want to ruffle feathers, but landlords are never happy. They can and will come after you."

Volk says one very common practice is to charge tenants at the end of their lease to replace carpet that was in poor condition before the lease was signed.

David Swain at ASU Legal Services also cautions tenants to be very careful of their carpet. He says one day he counseled three students from three separate Rentals Tempe properties who had lease agreements binding them to carpet replacement charges of $18 per yard. All three had a bill in their hands for about $1200 -- charged to them once they moved out because the rental company claimed the carpet was destroyed.

"Their approach to things is if there's any blemish at all on the carpeting, they'll wait until you move out, replace it and then charge the tenant," Swain says.

He added that while huge black stains on the carpet are one thing, tenants are not responsible for "ordinary wear and tear" that occurs from living in a house for a year and should not be charged with exorbitant replacement fees.

Volk adds that it's common for landlords to "steal security deposits" from their tenants, refusing to return them after the lease ends.

Olman and his roommates were lucky -- they managed to get some of their $1,300 deposit back.

After they moved out the roommates sent a letter to Rentals Tempe detailing everything that was noted in the post-move out walk-through, as well as everything that was wrong with the house throughout the time they occupied it. Olman said that sending that letter was the smartest thing they did as tenants.

"I think that was the only reason we got some of our money back," he said.

Indeed the roommates were lucky not to land in court -- many renters find themselves in expensive legal battles over lease agreements and move-out fees.

"We kept records, and we let them know we kept records," Olman says. "We let them know we weren't afraid to go to court over it, and that's the only reason why we didn't have to [go to court]."

Looking back on the experience, Olman and his roommates agree they should have walked out on the lease as soon as the problems started.

Volk says that when tenants find themselves in sticky situations with their landlords, sometimes the best thing to do is terminate the lease. But he cautions that it must be done carefully and suggests seeking the help of people who know what they're doing.

He adds that breaking a lease because you don't like your landlord is not legitimate. Breaking your lease because your house is unlivable and your situation getting progressively worse, is.

Still, Volk sees tactics like lease-breaking as an unsatisfactory fix to the problem of landlord-tenant relations. He said he'd like to see ASU play a more dominant role in fixing the landlord-tenant problems in Tempe.

"It would take an entity, such as ASU, to fund someone who really has tenants' interests at heart," he says. "If ASU took such a role there could be a receptive ear at the governor's office."

What's ASU got to do with it?

Volk has a point.

There are more than 47,000 students enrolled at ASU and the on-campus residence halls can only accommodate 5,600 of them. This means that 88 percent of ASU's student population must find someplace to live off campus, and since few students make enough money to purchase a house, this means renting.

Residential Life does have plans for a new housing community that would accommodate about 1,900 more students by 2007. However, it will be a residence hall "dedicated to freshman," according to Susan Mulligan at the Residential Life office. Solutions for students living off campus are still few and far between.

Mulligan says ASU and Tempe have "partnered to provide programs and services that enhance the overall academic pursuits and quality of life for those living, serving, and engaging in Arizona State University and the local Tempe community."

Unfortunately, this effort does little to protect students from a corrupt or litigious landlord.

Volk says this type solution is to be expected.

"For a while tenant issues became the bandwagon people jumped on," he says. "But when push comes down to shove, none of these entities are set up to empower tenants."

Volk says until there is a structure set up to protect tenants' rights, the best thing for to do is be proactive in communicating with their landlord that they will not allow him or her to take advantage of the situation.

"Use the self help remedy," he says. "Know your rights. Landlords hate it, but if you're prepared for a fight, it can work real well."

originally published: September 30, 2004

Copyright 2001-17, ASU Web Devil. All rights reserved. No reprints without permission.

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