Tenants coalition addresses lack of support for off-campus housing

Margaret Moran

On Sunday, Nov. 18, the Coalition of Queer and Women’s Tenants gathered in the Campus Center for its first ever meeting, discussing a collective course of action to address off-campus housing issues facing Macalester students over lasagna and veggie chips.

The coalition seeks to find resources for students who are both struggling to find off-campus housing and those who seek to address problems they face with their landlords.

Jesse Claire ’20 formed the coalition after they faced issues with their landlord earlier this fall while attempting to turn on their heating system for the winter.

“We could see our breath in our apartment,” Claire said, “and we asked ‘Do we have any legal recourse?’ It turned out, at that time, that we kind of didn’t. But it also turned out that there were no tenants groups on campus.”

Claire collaborated with classmates in their Feminist/Queer Theories and Methodologies class to respond. In accordance with the class requirement of completing an “action project,” Claire and several classmates decided to create an official coalition.

“We made the decision,” Claire said, “to have this first meeting be geared toward a coalition of queer, trans folks and women, because a lot of the time gender and sex-based discrimination… can be the hardest to identify.”

Claire, Elizabeth Everitt ’20, Katharine Moore ’20 and exchange student Sarah Murray from Leiden University College began the meeting with a presentation on the rights of tenants and the grounds for filing a complaint related to discrimination – including, in Minnesota, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Several students who attended the meeting voiced concerns about the lack of information available regarding housing code. Jessi-Alex Brandon ’20 described their experience finding a house for next year and the process of learning the housing code in St. Paul.

“After looking at the Mac housing page and the off-campus page on the Macalester website… I quickly realized how not-easy finding housing was going to be,” Brandon said. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be without having extra help.”

Brandon said that recently when they were looking at a house on Berkeley Ave., they were surprised to learn that no more than four unrelated people may live in a house together in the city of St. Paul without violating the city housing code.

“Before that, I had no idea that these zoning codes existed,” Brandon said. “That’s important for college students to know, [for] people who aren’t trying to pay as much for rent.”

Others came to the meeting to learn about addressing issues with landlords.

“I’m here because I subletted from somebody over the summer, and I ended up choosing where I wanted to sublet based on what I heard about landlords,” Em Friedman ’21 said. “I knew that there were certain landlords that were creepy and weird and I thought that was problematic.”

Claire and the other organizers said they are considering devoting some future meetings to workshop sessions geared towards helping students who are struggling to find housing, and others to helping students address problems related to their landlord.

Other ideas for future sessions include a workshop about tenants rights on campus, with a potential presentation from a representative of a group such as the St. Paul Department of Human Rights or HOME Line in Minneapolis on proactively solving tenant issues.

These events would be open to all of the student population, as opposed to exclusively queer, women and transgender-identifying students.

According to Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students DeMethra LaSha Bradley, the Office of Student Affairs and the High Winds Fund have sponsored several events related to tenants rights on campus in the past several years.

In January 2018, one such event, titled “The Basics of Moving Off-Campus Workshop”, had 30 sophomores in attendance. Another event, held in February, was titled “The Lease and The Legal Workshop,” and was designed to increase students’ understanding of how leasing and subletting works. Michael Vraa from Homeline presented at that workshop.

Members of the coalition are aware of these events, but feel that there could still be more opportunities for tenants education. Their goal is to meet that need with a more intentional tenant community on campus.

“I understand it’s kind of out of the school’s control, but I wish there was more school support for those who are about to move off-campus,” Trevor Zapiecki ’19 said. “There isn’t enough space on campus for everyone to live here, and it is kind of like ‘let people fend for themselves’ a little bit, like figure it out for yourselves, you know, like ‘It’s not our problem.’”

The coalition is also considering making information about the reputations of area landlords available to students, possibly via of a page of “renter testimonials.”

“We talked about [making a list] when we we first thought about starting a tenants union, the thing we have to be careful about is libel, and naming specific people,” Claire said. “We’d have to be careful and make sure it’s like ‘this has been my lived experience with this landlord,’ instead of a landlord hit list.”

Members of the coalition also expressed interest in collectively filing complaints against landlords who students frequently cite as being inattentive to tenant needs or violating tenants rights.

The coalition plans to meet again before the end of the semester to discuss their plans moving forward.