On a Short Lease 

Navigating your way through Missoula's treacherous rental market

Does this sound like somewhere you've lived? Cramped living quarters, bugs, rodents, foul odors, World War II-vintage plumbing fixtures, and a carpet that is indistinguishable from the back lawn. Meanwhile, your absentee landlord takes your $750 a month to vacation in the Cayman Islands and can't be reached when the water heater dies in the dead of winter.

Or, maybe this sounds like someone you rent to: The nightmarish tenant who pays his rent two weeks late and piles beer bottles and pizza boxes in the '82 Chevy pickup he's rebuilding in the front yard. Meanwhile, his unneutered Rottweiler is left unattended in the backyard at all hours of the night digging holes and barking his fool head off.

If you're a Missoula resident, there's about a 50-50 chance that you rent your home, which means that it's likely that you or someone you know has had at least one bad experience with a landlord or property management company. And if you're a landlord or a property manager, the odds are about the same that you've been burned by at least one bad tenant, and perhaps several.

So, you think you've got horror stories? Tell them to Kerry Plate-Heavy Runner. No, really, that's her job. Plate-Heavy Runner is a student volunteer with the Montana Public Interest Group's (MontPIRG) Landlord-Tenant Infor-mation Center, and listening to-and advising-tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities under Montana law is exactly what she's there for. And does she have some stories of her own to tell.

"We had a lady call from Anaconda whose landlord tried to cut costs by wiring her house [for electricity] with speaker wire," says Plate-Heavy Runner, in between phone calls to the Center's headquarters in Corbin Hall on the University of Montana campus. "One of my favorites was when one kid called me up and asked if he could be evicted for growing pot in his closet. Uh, yeah!"

Plate-Heavy Runner recounts tales of landlords entering apartments without permission, and even watching single girls while they sleep. "One girl got walked in on while she was in the shower," she says. "The landlord just pulled the curtain back and said, 'I'm here, by the way.'"

Lest anyone think that it's just the landlords who are the villains, Plate-Heavy Runner has recorded plenty of stories of tenants vandalizing their own apartments, riding bikes up and down the halls and shooting guns in the front yard.

"One lady who called up had rented out a furnished apartment and her tenants were selling off her furniture," says Plate-Heavy Runner.

Admittedly, such stories are not the norm, though they probably occur more often than one would imagine. Since April 1999, when the Landlord-Tenant Information Center was officially unveiled, the Center has fielded hundreds of phone calls from tenants and landlords from throughout western Montana, and currently receives at least 50 calls a week, according to MontPIRG Executive Director Chris Newbold.

The vast majority of calls, says Newbold, are from tenants with routine questions, such as how they can get their security deposit returned, under what conditions they can break a lease, or what they should do if a landlord refuses to perform routine repairs.

"A lot of these housing issues are very stressful," says Newbold. "A roof over your head, not having access to hot water, these things create a lot of stress in ordinary people."

But Newbold hastens to add that at least 35 percent of the calls they receive come from landlords, many of whom are single property owners who want to know what to do about tenants who don't obey the rules or pay their rent, or who are just seeking a good example for writing a rental agreement.

For example, while I was in MontPIRG's office, John Jones, a homeowner in the University area, stopped by for information about renting out a bedroom in his house on McLeod Avenue. According to Jones, he and his wife used to rent rooms to students about 20 years ago, but now he isn't sure if the laws have changed since then.

"I'd just like to eliminate any problems. It should be a two-way street for everyone," says Jones. "Just want to keep everyone happy, to protect them and me both."

"One question I have," he asks before leaving. "Smoking...?"

"Yes, you can disallow smoking," Plate-Heavy Runner tells him.

That is, after all, the primary goal of the Landlord Tenant Information Center: to provide consumers with useful, informative and free facts that can help head off problems before they arise.

"We have our work cut out for us, because when we get calls, usually we're getting them way too late," Newbold explains. "People are in a bind, they've already had that disagreement with the landlord, they haven't worked to reconcile their differences, and they come to us. And sometimes we have to give them bad news."

Blueprints of the Housing Market

To understand the scope of the problems that renters can face when entering Missoula's housing market-and about half of all households in Missoula rent-a quick look at the numbers is in order.

First, put away any misconceptions you might have about Missoula's cost of living being more reasonable than larger cities. Although the average price of many consumer goods is lower than larger cities like Portland or Seattle, those savings are frequently offset by the relatively higher cost of housing in Missoula.

According to figures provided by the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA), rental prices have jumped 34 percent in the last decade, while wages have remained stagnant. However, the amount of personal income needed to meet those housing costs (i.e., how much of your paycheck goes to paying rent and utilities) has increased 30 percent in the last 10 years. By the year 2004, MHA predicts that nearly 84 percent of Missoula's households will be using more than half of their income to meet their housing costs.

"Really, there's only a select number of property management companies in town that have a pretty good stranglehold on the rental market," says Newbold. And while he admits the housing crunch is not as severe as it was three or four years ago, he hastens to add, "At this point you can find housing. It's just a matter of how much you want to pay for it."

Of course, there is the question of what you get for your money. Statewide, about 31,000 families live in substandard housing, according to the Montana Department of Commerce. In Missoula alone, about one-third of Missoula's housing stock is more than 40 years old, which means that a good deal of it is likely in need of some kind of rehabilitation, repair or upgrade to be safe and up to code.

In June, the Missoula City Council approved a rental licensing ordinance that applies to most rental units in the city, but that ordinance fell short of requiring inspections of those units. (Actually, Mayor Kadas line-item vetoed that provision due to the cost burden it would impose on the city).

Moreover, possession of a rental license is no guarantee that a rental unit is in compliance with housing or life safety codes, but merely serves as a way for the city to keep track of who-and where-Missoula's landlords are.

The Law of the Land

For many first-time renters, a lease is the first legally binding contract they've ever entered into, and the initial taste of the vagaries and potential pitfalls of the law often ends up being a bitter one. This not only applies to new students but to new arrivals of all ages, who may be relocating from other states with more tenant-friendly laws.

For example, renters should keep in mind that while oral agreements are legally binding in Montana, they are far more difficult to verify or enforce, says Terry Burnham, an attorney with ASUM Legal Services. In addition, unlike some other states, Montana landlords are not required to put security deposits into an interest-bearing account, though non-refundable security deposits are illegal in this state.

Until recently, if a landlord failed to return your security deposit within 30 days and you took him to court, he could be forced to pay double your deposit in damages, says Burnham. However, in 1997 the Montana Legislature repealed that law, allowing tenants to sue only for the amount of the deposit itself. The result, says Burnham, has been a greater tendency for landlords to contend disputes with tenants and take them to court.

"There's no real incentive for bad landlords to return the security deposit," says Newbold. "There's no penalty for it."

Clearly, more could be done to level the playing field between landlords and tenants, says Newbold. For example, prospective tenants should also be aware that Montana imposes no ceilings on rent increases.

"As a landlord, I can bring you into a rental agreement at $300 a month and then two months later, with 30 days notice, I can raise your rent to $600," says Newbold. "And there's nothing that prohibits me from doing that."

Since Missoula renters are clearly in a sellers' (or in this case, lessors') market, it's just common sense to learn your rights and responsibilities under the law. To that end, MontPIRG has published The Montana Tenant-Landlord Guide, which Newbold calls "the best selling self-help guide in the state." This handbook (available at MontPIRG for $6, or through the Missoula Public Library) includes such useful information as how to select a rental unit, what a landlord may legally include in a rental agreement, your rights and responsibilities regarding security deposits, pets, repairs, privacy, terminating a lease, eviction, and so on.

The Guide outlines "the five basics of easy renting," which includes such common-sense advice as: Know your legal rights and responsibilities under the Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act; make all agreements and requests in writing and save copies for your records; read and understand all agreements and requests before signing them; report all legitimate grievances; and call MontPIRG immediately if you have problems or questions.

And of course, there's also the services of the Landlord-Tenant Information Center, which are free and available statewide through their toll-free number: 1-888-345-PIRG. Callers should be aware that by law, MontPIRG cannot provide legal advice. For that, you'll need to contact an attorney, ASUM Legal Services (if you're a University of Montana student) or Montana Legal Services.

Discrimination With a Smile?

It was less than three generations ago that hotels, apartments and boarding houses in Missoula could display signs that read, "No Chinese," or "Irishmen need not apply," and no one would bat an eye. That such blatant discrimination still goes on in 1999 is difficult to comprehend. And yet, those are exactly the kind of allegations that Montana Fair Housing investigates every day.

"Some people are very aware that they've been discriminated against," says Susan Fifield, executive director of Montana Fair Housing, the state's only non-profit agency that investigates allegations of housing discrimination. "Housing providers can be pretty blunt and say, 'We don't rent to Indians.'"

More often, however, housing discrimination wears a more subtle guise. For instance, a potential tenant (say, an African American or a person with a mental disability) goes to see an apartment and is told that the unit has already been rented. Meanwhile, the "For Rent" sign remains up several weeks later and the ad for it is still running in the newspaper.

Or, a single mother with children visits a rental unit, only to be steered to another apartment complex which the property manager says is "more child-friendly."

"We call that discrimination with a smile," says Fifield, "because it sounds like they're trying to help you, but in fact what they're telling you is, 'You can't live here.'"

Make no mistake about it: Under the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is illegal for you to be denied or dissuaded from housing because of your race, color, gender, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, or familial status. Additionally, the State of Montana protects you from discrimination based on your marital status, age, or creed. Still, a few notable exemptions exist. For instance, it is permissible to offer senior housing that prohibits residents under the age of 62, and owner-occupied housing with less than four units may prohibit children.

The realm of housing discrimination can be tricky terrain to negotiate, even for a well-meaning housing provider. For example, if a house has an irrigation ditch running across the backyard, a landlord might try to dissuade a family with a young child from moving in, for fear that she might fall in and drown.

Or, a property owner who recently renovated a house might be averse to the idea of renting to someone in a wheelchair, believing that a ramp leading to the front door will detract from the home's aesthetic appeal. Nevertheless, say experts, both are clear examples of housing discrimination.

"It's not up to the housing provider to decide what would be the most appropriate fit for the needs of this prospective tenant," says Pam Bean, program manager with Montana Fair Housing. "It's up to the tenant to decide what housing works for them."

Proving that discrimination has occurred, however, presents its own set of challenges. When Montana Fair Housing receives an allegation of discrimination, they send out testers-volunteers who pose as potential tenants-to visit the unit and gather relevant facts such as the amount of the rent, security deposit, cost of utilities, rules, whether pets are permitted, etc.

At least one tester is always a member of the same protected class as the person alleging the discrimination (say, a Native American) while the others are not. All the testers' other qualifications, such as their income and availability to move in, are kept more or less equal. The testers then return to the office and compare notes, and after repeated visits, determine whether a verifiable pattern of discriminatory behavior exists.

For example, Montana Fair Housing received a complaint from a Native American woman with two children who visited an apartment and was told that the rent was $795 a month. But when her white friend visited that same unit, she was told the rent was $450. Subsequent visits by testers verified the rent difference, charges were filed, and the case was won.

Fifield emphasizes that there must be hard facts to support the allegation before Montana Fair Housing can pursue charges through Housing and Urban Development, the state's Human Rights Bureau or the court system.

"We want the facts," says Fifield. "We don't want opinions. You can't go to court with opinions."

Clearly, the problem of housing discrimination is widespread, and with only four people to investigate more than 600 allegations of discrimination statewide each year, the employees of Montana Fair Housing have their work cut out for them. Investigations can take many months, if not years, to resolve, and the more difficult cases, such as those of sexual harassment, can be particularly troublesome to prove.

In Missoula, the most frequent allegations are those brought by people claiming discrimination based on their familial status, although mental and physical disabilities, when counted together, account for the single largest number of complaints.

"With mental disabilities, there's a lot of fear by the housing community. It's something they just don't understand," says Fifield. "They probably picture things far worse than they really are. ... But we all have a right to housing regardless."

In the Dog House

It is no small irony that in a region where hunting, raising livestock and horseback riding virtually embody the spirit of Big Sky Country, pets, particularly dogs, are largely unwelcome in rental units. A quick scan through the classified ads and the apartment lists that property management companies provide echoes a distressing mantra: "No pets."

And yet, the quality of pet owners and their pets are as varied as that of parents and their children, from the well-cared-for to the neglected ones that run wild killing livestock. Nevertheless, unless you own a guide dog (protected by the American with Disabilities Act), finding housing for you and your animals can be a difficult and stressful chore.

"It's so frustrating," says Raina Kuntzmann, a recent transplant to the Missoula area from San Jose, Calif., who has spent the past two weeks looking (without luck) for a place for her, her boyfriend and their two dogs. "Don't you just wish people could meet your dogs and give them a chance?"

"I think most landlords are just scared," says Kate Geranios of the Missoula Humane Society. "Probably every landlord has had at least one bad experience with pets that color their opinion on all pet owners."

In July, the Missoula Humane Society began tracking the reasons that people bring their own pets to the shelter, and made a disturbing discovery: In the last two months alone, 55 of the 159 pets surrendered by their owners were because people were moving and couldn't bring their pets to their new home.

"It's the biggest reason people bring their animals to us," says Geranios. "We see it every day, day in and day out."

Geranios says that often the problems associated with pets are attributable to owners and landlords who don't understand the reasons why pets do damage, namely, that the animal's basic needs, such as socialization and exercise, are not being met.

"Generally, a tired dog is a well-behaved dog," says Geranios.

There are, however, things that both tenants and landlords can do to improve the situation. Geranios suggests that landlords becomes more flexible about their pet policies, and ask potential tenants questions about their pet's age, breed, how long it's been with them, whether the animal has been spayed or neutered, and if it's current on its vaccines. Such questions are all good indicators of a tenant's commitment to responsible pet ownership.

Potential tenants are also advised to obtain written references from past landlords who can attest to the behavior of that animal, and the owner's commitment to keeping the rental unit clean and damage-free.

Geranios would also like to see more landlords offer tenants the opportunity for a 30-day trial period, after which time the landlord can inspect the unit for cleanliness and damage. Such small concessions could likely go a long way toward keeping the peace between landlords and tenants, as well as keeping family pets out of the shelters.

After all, in the jungle that is the Missoula housing market, if you can't have your children and your pets living with you, a house can hardly be called a home at all.

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