Brendon Augustine is a professional painter, so when his Portland apartment needed improvement he did his best work. The USM freshman planned to stay in the renovated apartment for at least two years. But his landlord had other ideas.
After nine months, the landlord told Augustine and his roommates to move out. Since they had signed a nine-month lease there was nothing they could do, even though their landlord had verbally agreed to a much longer stay. Worse still, the landlord refused to return the security deposit based on what Augustine described as “a bunch of lies.”
It is the kind of story that Beth George, Student Legal Services attorney, hears all the time.
“I think that for landlords the college population is pretty good prey,” said George. “They know (college students) have limited resources, and their parents aren’t around.”
Augustine and his roommates had one resource not readily available to most students, a lawyer who helped get their security deposit back. Students who do not have an attorney as a friend or family member often end up seeking out George’s help.
The Student Legal Services office receives about five calls and visits per day, and according to George, the majority of these deal with landlord-tenant issues. Due to time restraints George cannot represent students herself. When students come to the Legal Services office she helps them to find the information they need and can help them find an outside attorney if they need one.
“I think students like having this resource, and they also realize the limitations of it, such as that I can’t represent them,” said George.
According to George some landlords make excuses for not returning security deposits. George advises students to be one step ahead of their landlords.
“Be careful of what the lease says. Take pictures to document what the place looks like the day you move in. Get everything in writing,” said George.
George also described legal action that renters can take if their dwelling falls into disrepair.
According to George tenants can use the Maine Warranty of Habitability Law to force landlords to make basic repairs. The law even allows tenants to withhold a portion of their rent, using the money to make the repairs themselves.
In 1999, four USM students won a $1,062,500 verdict against Portland landlord Joseph Soley. The students successfully argued that Soley kept his properties in terrible condition and threatened tenants when they called with complaints.
The best defense against bad landlords is to avoid them in the first place, according to Bill Simpson, a Portland landlord. Simpson recommended paying careful attention to details when looking for an apartment.
“One of the immediate signs is what kind of condition is the building in. Is there trash in the doorway? If there is then the landlord probably doesn’t care about his property. After the landlord leaves you might want to sneak back and ask other tenants what kind of place it is,” said Simpson.
Not all students have a hard time with their landlords. Alex Kazimierczac, sophomore, has nothing but praise for hers.
“My landlord is awesome. If you have a complaint he fixes it within 24 hours,” said Kazimierczac.
George pointed students to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Law Guide, on the state of Maine’s official Web site, for quick legal information. According to George, Ralph Nader called it one of the best consumer sites in the nation.
Student Legal Services helps students deal with a host of legal issues in addition to landlord tenant disputes and can be reached at 780-4792.
Staff writer John McCarthy can be contacted at [email protected].