The Georgetown Student Tenant Association is a non-profit student organization that provides confidential counsel to peers seeking off-campus housing and to those encountering the problems all too common for tenants. Not only is GSTA a source for advice about handling these affairs, we are also advocates of tenants’ rights. We strive to represent the voice of tenants, especially because many tenants do not even know they have the rights that landlords exploit. Essentially, GSTA acts as a liaison between student tenants and the information, and even the authority that can defend the interests of tenants.
GSTA works extensively with both the University and the DC government to give student tenants a voice in affairs about which they may stay silent or have no knowledge. The Tenant Association works with the Office of Neighborhood Life, a university office that works solely to help and improve the conditions of students with issues relating to housing. We also work in collaboration the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Office of the Tenant Advocate, two local DC government agencies that seek to protect the interests of residents and tenants through methods of advocacy, legal and financial services, and enforcing DC law through business regulations and licensing. These resources have provided the GSTA with a valuable network of information and legitimacy that allows our organization to ascend beyond the level of simple peer advisors and into the realm of student advocates. While we possess no legally binding authority, our connections to these organizations with overlapping interests extend our range of operations and ability to impact the conditions of Georgetown tenants.
With the assistance of the network we have created, the GSTA is able to provide a number of services for Georgetown students, and while mostly limited to affairs of off-campus housing, the scope of these issues resonate beyond our local Georgetown community into the surrounding DC area. Primarily, the GSTA provides lease-reviews, which is simply an opportunity for students to receive advice on their leases to determine their legality and to clarify important content matter. Our advocates utilize knowledge of DC housing law to identify confusing clauses that establish crucial responsibilities of both tenants and landlords, and even clauses that blatantly violate the law at the expense of the tenant. We believe creating a sense of transparency in leases will help enforce accountability; if tenants know their rights, and even their restrictions, the relationship between tenants and their landlords will hopefully become more functional and civil and less exploitative and belligerent. The hunt for off-campus housing is such a competitive endeavor at Georgetown, and landlords take advantage of their leverage; the demand is greater than the supply, resulting in leases that scam the tenants who do not know their rights and are panicking to resolve their housing hunt without reviewing the conditions of the lease. Essentially, our lease-reviews provide a way to educate students and identify their rights.
The GSTA also provides advice and networks to help resolve disputes between landlords and tenants. Some classic issues revolve around landlords withholding safety deposits, charging illegal amounts for safety deposits, or negligent landlords who won’t make necessary repairs despite legal obligations. If these issues require legal action or authoritative enforcement, we recommend and connect students to resources such as the Office of the Tenant Advocate to assist in their problems. Other issues pertain to pressure from landlords seeking to intimidate their tenants into compliance. These issues provide a venue for GSTA advocacy; sometimes a tenant knows their rights, but landlords may threaten them or pressure them not to take action against their interests.
This January, the GSTA participated in what we called the “BBL Blitz”, an event in which our advocates and members of the Office of Neighborhood Life went on a door-knocking campaign to properties that did not have a basic business license, a license certified by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that confirms the property meets the safety conditions required to lease it. About fifty properties leased to Georgetown students did not have these licenses, whether landlords forgot to renew their licenses or were avoiding the issue based on costly violations. The DCRA became concerned about this fact and handled the matter seriously in requiring landlords to obtain their BBLs or face litigation from the Office of the Attorney General. The GSTA and ONL explained to students that their properties would need to have an inspection by the DCRA in the near future because their landlords were operating illegally. We clarified that the tenants did nothing wrong and that our services were available to them. The DCRA, whose intentions were laudable in promoting safety of tenants, had the potential to reveal tenant violations of their lease or safety issues related to the number of tenants occupying a residence. Since the DCRA, the ONL, and the GSTA did not want tenants being punished because of their landlords’ incompliance, the GSTA and ONL were able to work with tenants to protect them from future consequences.
Overall, we educate, advocate, and represent the interest of students living off-campus. We are students as well, encountering the same issues and battling the same abuses, so we represent a personable voice for our peers and can establish a level of trust we hope will make our organization a success. For our future, we hope to represent a model for more than Georgetown; we want to export our project to schools throughout DC and create a DC Tenant Association network that can tackle landlord-tenant issues on a larger scale through combined advocacy efforts.