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Renters' rights... and wrongs

The house was a wreck. A closet door lay broken on the ground with bent window screens. Cigarette burns and water marks littered the windowsills. There were too many stains on the carpet to count. The bathroom doorjamb was splintered from being kicked in. In the kitchen, there were maggots on the cutting board.

"This is why I dislike renting to younger tenants without a rental history," said Jim Straub, the property manager of the 5-year-old house. "My houses are spotless when I give them to a tenant. This gives you an idea of what nine months can do to a property."

Straub, 32, is vice president of the Rental Owners Association and is the third-generation owner of several property management companies in Eugene. After a month-long process that started with the tenants not paying rent, he went through court proceedings and had the tenants evicted. "This one is just really bad," he said. "It's very rare."

This is a prime example of tenants not knowing their rights and responsibilities when it comes to renting a house.

Straub said landlords can choose to not rent to students.

"You can legally discriminate against students as long as that is the only reason you're not allowing them," he said.

Such discrimination is allowed because students are not a designated minority group. Some property owners may choose not to rent to students because of high turnover or wear and tear on the house.

Most tenant responsibilities are outlined in the rental agreement, which tenants and landlords sign early in the rental process. According to the Oregon State Bar's Tel-Law service, the responsibilities of the tenant include using the property only as a home, paying rent, keeping the property reasonably clean and returning the property in the same condition in which it was received, withstanding normal wear and tear.

Two important tenant rights are the right to privacy and the right to a habitable home. Right to privacy means the landlord cannot enter the house or apartment without 24 hours' notice before entering. This notice can be given as a letter by mail or delivered by hand. The right to a habitable home includes proper heating, plumbing, structural integrity and weatherproofing, said David Hansen, housing advocate for OSPIRG. In December, he and Eugene Citizens for Housing Standards passed a local ordinance to ensure these needs would be met.

"It provides a means for renters to get problems taken care of without the courts," Hansen said.

The public can comment on the ordinance until May 31 at under the link "Administrative Rules for the new Rental Housing Code."

"We encourage students to check it out," said Scott Lu, community housing coordinator for the ASUO. "This is a campus town; most of the renters are students."

When it is time to move, many tenants forget some aspects of the rental agreement. For instance, some agreements require that tenants pay the first and last month's rent at the beginning of the rental period.

"They forget they already paid the last month's rent," Lu said.

Deposits are another important issue. After the termination of the tenancy, the landlord must return the deposit to the tenant within 31 days,

according to the Oregon State Bar. Some of the money may be used to make repairs. "People don't really know how to get back their deposits," Hansen said.

In the case of Straub's damaged house, all of the deposit will be used for repairs.

"Sometimes you get burned," he said. "But generally people leave my property in good condition. Nothing makes me happier than refunding the entire deposit."

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