Off-Campus Housing Issues

Billy Ferguson/Fourth Estate

What students moving off-campus should know


As finding space on-campus is a problem for many Mason students, living off-campus in their own apartment or room is an attractive alternative. With 652 students seen last semester in fall appointments with an off-campus advisor as well as 596 students that were found to be coming to the off-campus student lounge when the department started measuring on Oct. 1, off-campus housing seems like the place to be for many students at Mason.

However, within the off-campus system, students can be easily exposed to landlords who are predatory or exploitative in nature.

Off-campus housing does not personally meet any of those that put their space for rent on their website, where all options they have shown available to rent are stored. Often, they are not in direct contact with the property owners that have listings shown on the site.

In order to gain access to the site, property owners will go onto the site and sign up depending on their housing classification. Individual/private owners have to pay a fee of $50 in order to have access to post onto the website for one year, as well as a Basic Business License (BBL) if located in Washington, D.C.

Once allowed onto the site, it is highly autonomous, with the person behind the listing responsible for all aspects of advertising and selling the space except for the running of the website.

“If a student has found a property on our website that the landlord isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do, or for some reason they don’t like their situation and they’ll let us know, at that point we would go and look into that property lister and then take appropriate steps,” Casey Smith, coordinator of off-campus student services, said. “We would see if they’re active on the site still, if there’s been any other complaints against them but we don’t handle landlord/tenant issues.”

As off-campus housing does not personally handle their website themselves, utilizing a company called Off Campus Partners instead, they also do not screen any of the lessors that appear on the site itself. This places the burden of discovering predatory lessors onto others, namely Mason students.

Mentioned on Off Campus Partners’ personal website, there is also no comprehensive safety checklist on Mason’s off-campus website at this time, which would be a resource often found through the Internet that would describe how to stay safe while searching for housing. Although other resources include tips, there is ultimately more information on parking than safety on the site.

“This is something that the university has decided to put up, so that is not something that we have personally put up there,” a representative from Off Campus Partners said about a comprehensive safety checklist, who thought that universities should definitely have one of these resources on their site. “Any resource is approved by the university.”

As the company that is responsible for the website, Off Campus Partners is mainly responsible for the screening the website and ensuring that members of the community are not being exposed to predatory landlords, and having systems in place that allow them to detect those that are trying to scam or harm students.

“With scammers and things like that, we have the technology to pinpoint a phone number that has been used multiple times, an email that has been used multiple times, specific emails that are often associated with scammers our system picks up on, and we flag all of those” the representative for Off Campus Partners said.

She also stated that they look at every single listing that comes onto the website, looking to see if it is appropriate.

However, Off Campus Partners also does not take any responsibility if something happens to a student, pointing to the terms of service provided at the bottom of the website, which includes, “The information provided on this website concerning rental properties is provided by landlords/rental agencies, and neither George Mason University (Mason) nor Off Campus Partners, LLC (Off Campus Partners) makes any representations or warranties that any of the information listed on this website about the properties is accurate.”

“How are we supposed to know that? That’s why we have the terms of service, and we let everyone know that [they should] ‘Ask your questions, meet with them in person,’” she said. “We essentially just provide the resource that connects students and landlords.”

Neither off-campus housing nor Off Campus Partners handles any issues that involves tenant and landlord disputes.

“We don’t take on any of that as Off-Campus Student Services, but we do refer students to external help if they do need it, but that doesn’t tend to be the majority of our conversations with students,” Smith said.

Fairfax County Consumer Affairs is one of these external helpers, allowing tenants to mediate or arbitrate with their landlords in order to come to an agreement that satisfies both sides.

“A lot of times it’s just a matter of trying to get everybody to step back in, take the emotion out of it and just think of it as a business transaction ‘cause at the end of the day that is the way it’s being viewed by the law, because you’re a tenant-landlord relationship, it is like a business transaction, so it’s really just trying to get people to maybe take it down a notch and try to understand the other side and see if there’s some middle ground where an agreement can be made,” a member of the branch said.

However, there are limits to what the Fairfax County Consumer Affairs branch can do, as they are not lawyers or law enforcement officials and the process is voluntary.

“We can pretty much mediate anything having to do with tenant [and] landlord issues, but there needs to be a resolution in sight,” they said. “Sometimes we negotiate termination of a lease, and sometimes the landlord’s not willing to do that, so it just depends.”

As college students may not be willing to attend court over these issues because of the money or time that it requires, they can end up not pursuing the matter any further than that, which could allow the landlord to harm future tenants again.

With so much uncertainty, students should be sure to do a complete screening of their housing options and be sure to meet their landlords face to face prior to any commitments.