Know your rights in off-campus apartments

by Beacon Staff • March 28, 2007

dining hall food is just a summer away for

many Emerson students who opt to live

off campus next year, but the allure of

independent living can often overshadow

the risks and responsibilities of fleeing to

that first Boston pad.,Escaping the clutches of RAs and

dining hall food is just a summer away for

many Emerson students who opt to live

off campus next year, but the allure of

independent living can often overshadow

the risks and responsibilities of fleeing to that first Boston pad.

Those migrating to the greener pastures

of Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Fenway

or Allston/Brighton should take note of

how to prepare themselves and their new

digs.

Renters insurance is an easy way for

students to calm their parents and their

fears of losing personal belongings or

having to pay medical costs if someone

gets hurt in the apartment.

"It's not expensive," Sheny Sarno, an

agent at Skelly Insurance, said in a telephone interview. "A lot of people don't

know about renters insurance. It provides

so much coverage for so little premium."

Sarno, who graduated from Suffolk

University, has seen the situation from

the other side of the fence as a student

renter.

"Typically, $20,000 to $30,000 of coverage

[for belongings] will cost about

$175 to $300 a year," Sarno said.

Renters insurance also covers visitors

who come into the apartment who may

incur injury, or if insured residents are

put out of their home for other damages

like fire or flood.

Besides questions about renters insurance,

Coordinator for Off-Campus Student

Services Elin Riggs said that parents

are the ones who often voice concerns

about safety in apartments, not students.

"I am often times asked questions about

what neighborhoods are more desirable

to live in and which ones are safer," Riggs

said in an e-mail. "I tell students and parents that it is difficult to answer that question, since everyone's comfort level when it comes to safety is different."

Riggs also advises students to visit the

City of Boston's Web site to access crime

statistics for certain neighborhoods.

Even though the Boston Police Department

compiles daily, monthly and biannual

reports on its Web site, the information may take some decoding by the average apartment shopper.

Six types of crime are detailed in each

of the city's 12 geographic districts, which are listed alphanumerically by police district code, not by the common neighborhood name.

This requires the soon-to-be-renter to

look up the police district code of the

neighborhood in which they want to live,

and then find the correlating statistics in

the report; police districts are not to be

confused with voting districts, which are

drawn differently.

The BPD also offers 911 call records

in a one-block radius of any address in

the Boston area dating back five years,

but that information must be requested

specifically and can take up to 10 days

to receive, according to Media Relations

Secretary Jill McLaughlin.

"All kinds of people call to ask, people

that are buying houses or moving to a

different neighborhood, and I'm sure

some of them are parents or students,"

McLaughlin said.

Although dangers outside the apartment

are more obvious concerns, conditions

inside a swanky pad can be cause

for concern.

According to nolo.com, a leading do-ityourself legal Web site designed to help laymen through legal processes, landlords are required to make any major repairs affecting the structure of a building or its basic functions like heat, electricity, plumbing or vermin infestations, all of which, if not properly maintained, could present health or safety issues.

A variety of literature covering tenants'

rights and real-estate law is available

through the Web site's bookstore, as well

as a directory of lawyers categorized by

legal specialty, state and county.

If legal advice is sought on a tight

budget, Greater Boston Legal Services,

a non-profit legal counseling agency provides a variety of services for those dealing with housing problems.

Two recent points for both landlords

and tenants in Massachusetts have been

the passage of Nicole's Law, named for

seven-year-old Nicole Garofalo, who

was killed by carbon monoxide in 2005

when deadly amounts of the gas filled her

home in Plymouth, and three fatal fires

that took the lives of two Boston University

students and a third visiting student,

revealing the dangers some young tenants

face.

Although no Emerson students were

hurt in the fires, the tragedies give reason

to pause and think about fire safety.

The new law stipulates that a carbon

monoxide detector be placed within 10

feet of the door of a bedroom, or on every

level of a dwelling or parking garage in

the state, at the expense of the owner.

Overall, the Nicole's Law caused a

jump in carbon-monoxide-related calls to

the BFD, spokesman Steve MacDonald

said.

In 2006 the Boston Fire Department

responded to 313 incidents in which

carbon monoxide gas was found, 206

incidents where a detector malfunctioned

and 299 incidents of a detector going off

but no carbon monoxide was found, usually

because the tenants will immediately

open the windows, Steve MacDonald,

BFD spokesman, said.

"Usually while we're there we check

the heating system, because nine times

out 10, that's the source," MacDonald

said. "Either the boiler hasn't been serviced

properly, or the vents have leaks in

them."

MacDonald said that the number of

responses have risen since 2005, probably

due in part to Nicole's Law.

"There's been more of an education of

the public," MacDonald said.

But the BFD isn't the only department

working harder to keep tenants safer;

the city of Boston's Inspectional Services

Department (ISD), responsible for

writing code violations, has amped up

enforcement efforts of city building codes

as well.

Dion Irish, assistant commissioner for

the ISD, said that since last August, his

department and the mayor have worked

together to give the city greater power to

keep apartments safe and clean.

"Students were moving into filthy

apartments and we needed leverage to get

those apartments up to code," Irish said in

a telephone interview. "One of the problems

we have is how do we know when an

apartment is being turned over?"

The best way to make sure a living space

meets standards is for tenants to schedule

an inspection with the ISD within 45 days

of moving in, Irish said, with the cost of

code violations almost always falling on

the landlord.

Sophomore writing, literature and publishing

major Justin Joffe said he had no

idea about inspections.

"I didn't know that you're entitled to

an inspection, wow. That's pretty cool,"

Joffe said. "I know I have smoke detectors,

which I disabled, but I didn't know

about the carbon monoxide law."

Joffe, whose landlord is a building

inspector, said he wasn't worried about

his East Boston apartment but said other

students might not have that convenience.

For reasons like Joffe's, Irish said the

ISD will have inspectors out roaming the

neighborhoods, looking to educate those

new to off campus life.

"We thought this was something that

needed to be addressed," Irish said. "Students

and parents have a right to these

inspections."