More than 30,000 Penn State students lived off-campus in the last academic year. Most signed leases — but did they understand what they signed?
Some undergraduates might have done their research before signing the lease for their first apartment — or paid a visit to Student Legal Services to dissect its wording, like the joint and several liability clause.
Others might have rushed into the process, fearful of not receiving an on-campus housing contract.
The wording of leases creates a “huge barrier” as students try to sift through security deposits, maintenance fees and damage protocols, said Off-Campus Student Union President Veronica Hilferty.
Enter Lions Lease — a new model lease that is aimed at promoting improved understanding between first-time tenants, landlords, property managers and other affected groups in State College.
Kelly Mroz, director of Student Legal Services, led the creation of the draft contract and its accompanying website, lionslease.com, which debuted this fall.
It’s no secret that student tenants often clash with their landlords, said Terry Ford, president of the University Park Undergraduate Association. He described the relationship as chilled because of their lack of communication.
When landlords and tenants do interact, the relationship often turns adversarial when settling a dispute, Ford said.
“There’s such a high demand for housing in State College that these landlords don’t really have much incentive to change their practices,” Ford said. “Either way, they’ll have customers. I think students are feeling the brunt of that.”
Hilferty sees it differently.
“There is no hostility whatsoever,” she said. “We need to form a more perfected platform of communication, and that’s what we’re hoping the model lease would do.”
“There’s a lot of misconceptions of who wants to understand who,” she added. “On both ends, students want to understand their landlords, and landlords want to understand their students.”
Mroz said Lions Lease was created through ideas from a committee representing local government, attorneys, landlords, tenants and students, though the concept predates her tenure, which began in 2014.
“Education was kind of a linchpin to anything working,” Mroz said. “The student tenants can be a really tough type of tenant, and so that puts a lot of strain on the landlords. They respond by trying to tighten things up in their leases.”
No one side is to blame for a given conflict, Mroz said. But, she said, Lions Lease helps to bring about dialogue and “reveal the other perspective.”
The document closely resembles the plain-language lease written by attorney Ronald Friedman, author of the book, “Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Law and Practice.”
Friedman said he originally published his lease — now used widely across the commonwealth — in 1994 after the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act was passed.
Standardizing the leasing contract is a laudable goal since everyone will be familiar with the terms, including students inexperienced in legal matters, said Friedman, who wasn’t involved with Lions Lease.
“It’s in understandable language that is short and concise and clearly explains what everything is,” he said.
Bill Kitt, president of the Central Pennsylvania Landlord’s Association, said the plain language is directed at a persistent yet solvable issue. Whenever he interacts with students looking for housing at Penn State Altoona, he reads the lease aloud and breaks down its stipulations — then repeats the process around move-in day.
“Most attorneys would advise you to have plain language in your leases because typically a landlord is supposed to be more sophisticated and understand the language a lot easier than an 18- or 19-year-old,” said Kitt, the owner of BV Properties.
The Lions Lease website also provides tenants with resources for researching landlords in the area, avoiding scams and learning basic lease terminology.
Property manager of Associated Realty Property Management Kristen Holzwarth attended several committee meetings on Lions Lease. “I think it will help as an educational tool for sure,” she said.
State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham supported the project, along with Centrice Mulfinger from the borough’s Office of Community Engagement.
“The big picture here is that we want all of our residents to have a positive quality of life,” Mulfinger said.
It’s too early to gauge the success of Lions Lease, but legal services director Mroz said she’ll be able to identify if landlords have modified their contracts based on her office’s lease reviews with students.
Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.