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Chris Busco: UCLA should vet landlords, provide resources for off-campus housing searches

(Courtney Fortier/Daily Bruin)

By Chris Busco

July 15, 2018 10:25 p.m.

UCLA, like any college, is a stressful place. Final exams, internship applications and club commitments ensure students are rigid with tension as their minds and bodies are put to the test. With so much demanded of them, university housing is a godsend to strung-out students. They don’t have to worry about shady landlords, subpar living conditions, coordinating utilities or understanding the legalese of a lease agreement.

But students are in for a rude awakening during their senior year. UCLA’s three-year housing guarantee ensures that students are forced to swim with the sharks in Westwood’s rental market their next year when they look for a place to stay.

There is a clear knowledge gap students inevitably have when they go from university housing into the private market. For many, searching for an apartment is their first foray into true adulthood.

The problem is, nobody has taught them where to start when it comes to apartment hunting, much less how not to get taken advantage of.

The lack of guaranteed four-year university housing ensures a rental market where steady student demand, coupled with a lack of experience as a tenant, grants landlords a tremendous amount of power over student renters. This vulnerability should concern administrators. The university has a responsibility to ensure students have the tools to navigate the difficult and predatory Westwood rental market.

UCLA should provide a centralized resource for students searching for apartments. The university should create an online platform that consolidates its existing resources with new ones to smooth students’ transition from the dorms into apartments. These university-provided tools should work to ensure students have the available information and resources necessary to be informed consumers in the Westwood rental market and prevent them from being taken advantage of by predatory landlords and leases.

Specifically, the online resources should include information about current fair market prices, standard inclusions and exclusions in lease agreements, tenant rights and how-to guides on setting up utilities.

The need for these resources is compounded because students typically start looking for apartments around February. This means that inexperienced students are dealing with an apartment on top of all the other things they have to handle, such as homework, studying and extracurriculars.

The dearth of university resources, be that apartment guides or proper management vetting, opens up opportunities for landlords to shortchange students, be that in their leases or by skimping on repairs later in the year.

There are compelling reasons why the university cannot guarantee four years of housing. With the Westwood Village’s historically fierce restrictiveness toward new, large-scale housing developments, and pressure from the state government to continue admitting increased numbers of students each year, it is no surprise UCLA’s housing options are bursting at the seams.

But that does not mean the university is free to ignore the consequences of only guaranteeing three years of housing. The policy forces students to go out on their own to find housing in a market that is stacked against them, and the least the university could do is provide adequate guidance for them. After all, students don’t just come to UCLA for a degree – they come to learn how to be adults as well.

UCLA has made some attempts at providing resources to students. Alison Hewitt, a UCLA spokesperson, said there are several resources students can use for housing, including those by Student Legal Services, the Community Housing Office and private sites such as Bruinwalk, a Daily Bruin website.

But these resources are far from adequate. The information they provide is scattered between multiple UCLA-affiliated and nonaffiliated entities, which are not well advertised or easy to find. Centralizing them in one place would make it easier for students to successfully find affordable apartments in an easy, stress-free way.

Furthermore, the resources most necessary – vetting landlords and an avenue for asking specific questions about the apartment hunting process – are not included. These resources are the most necessary because students do not have the ability or the resources to adequately vet landlords and management companies.

In order to vet landlords and management companies, the university should assign staff to investigate the different entities that own and manage Westwood properties, assigning a letter grade ranking to each of them. The university should also consolidate vetted complaints from students and provide the campus community with a summary of them for each apartment complex.

The argument can be made that the administration does not have to help students once they are no longer in university housing. However, UCLA has a responsibility to vet landlords and management companies in the North Village so students can easily determine if the entity they are dealing with is honest and fair.

Signing a lease with a dishonest landlord or management company could leave students in units that are not properly maintained or place them in jeopardy of being swindled out of their full security deposit – often an entire month’s rent. And this shortchanging of students and thus their livelihoods – something that can easily spill over into their well-being – should trouble administrators and catalyze them to, at the very least, provide a hub of information so other students don’t fall prey to Westwood’s shady real estate.

Westwood is by no means a renter’s paradise, and no one is expecting the university to solve the neighborhood’s housing problems.

But if UCLA is going to have its students swim with the sharks, the least it can do is provide a protective cage.

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Chris Busco | Opinion columnist
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
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