Off Campus Housing Forum Held to Discuss Problems with Properties, Landlords

Over 20 students came to a forum held on April 12 to discuss tenants’ issues with residential rental properties and landlords in the City of Frostburg.

The forum was organized by students enrolled in Dr. Kathleen Powell’s “Citizen Leader” class. In the class, students organize to complete a social change project.

“We wanted to undertake rental housing and improve its quality,” said Eric Gontrum, a student in the class. Gontrum added the group’s goal is to “bring a light to these injustices” and “mobilize the students” to start a conversation about the quality of rental properties in Frostburg.

Gontrum said that next Thursday, April 21, the student group is giving a presentation to the Mayor and Council at City Hall. They will be sharing tenants’ stories about poor rental housing quality. Tenants are encouraged to share their stories with Gabby Cousino, another student in the group, at Gmcousino0@frostburg.edu.

After giving an overview of the group’s mission and sharing photographs of questionable conditions in rentals, the group started small group discussions for students to discuss their thoughts on rentals. Topics ranged from concerns, advantages, and problems in rental units, as well as the factors that motivated students to move off campus.

Students pointed to independence, privacy, and a need to cut costs as reasons they moved off-campus. However, they pointed out that the cost of bills still runs high off campus, and utilities are often below average.

Many students called for dishwashers in their rental units; others complained about a lack of air conditioning and spotty heat.

“It’s zero degrees or a hundred degrees,” one student said.

Another student criticized the contract agreements tenants enter into with landlords.

“Contracts are too confusing,” he said. “They’ve got secret stuff in there.”

After discussing the general issues affecting students living in rental units, Erin Kroder, another student in the group, invited students to share their stories.

Jeffrey Franklin, Daniel Faison, and Lee Tavares, who had lived on 240 Center Street, shared their story about how they had to leave the property after mold was discovered in their house.

“Three weeks ago, we found out our house was infested with mold,” Faison said.

Large amounts of mold were found behind the wall in the bathroom at the house. (Photo Credit: Jeff Franklin)
Large amounts of mold were found behind the wall in the bathroom at the house. (Photo Credit: Jeff Franklin)

They explained that, in September 2015, they noticed a leak in their bathroom that went through their living room and into the basement. The wall smelled “funny,” Tavares added.

Franklin said he informed the landlord about the issue. Weeks later, the landlord had the bathroom walls caulked, which temporarily stopped the leak, he explained. However, Franklin said the leak came back around November, and the wall became discolored.

The three roommates said they reported the issue again to their landlord, and they said nobody came to solve the issue. Around this time, Faison’s dog began throwing up, and the veterinarian did not have an explanation for this, according to the tenants. The roommates said they reported feeling sick, citing respiratory system weakness and sinus issues.

Mold and mildew are not listed in the City of Frostburg’s Inspection Checklist for Property Owners.

According to a presentation on Mold found on the City of Frostburg’s website, “An experienced Inspector will be able to identify “Red Flag” areas. The inspector will make recommendations for mold testing. The inspector will document the source of the water intrusion, and make recommendations of possible correction. The inspector will have agreements or disclosure statements signed by the client.”

(Photo credit: Jeff Franklin)
(Photo credit: Jeff Franklin)

The roommates said they made a complaint to City Hall and to their landlord, Brenda Byrnes, a member of A2Z Property Services.

After covering the broken down wall with a piece of drywall, Byrnes told them it was safe to live in the house, according to Franklin.

Byrnes told The Bottom Line, “I had [an] environmental inspector come in and do a mold test for air quality in the house which was cleared.” She alleged that the roommates owed over $6,000 in rent and utilities. She said she assisted the tenants in finding temporary on-campus housing.

The property was later found in compliance, according to City Hall records.

Franklin and Faison said they re-located to Cambridge Hall, but they had to pay over $1,500 to cover room and board.

Faison alleged that inspections weren’t thorough, to the landlord’s benefit. “They probably don’t look [thoroughly],” he said. “They probably just check it off.” 

In the City of Frostburg, property owners and owner’s agents, who manage the properties for owners, are able to handpick their inspector from the list of certified inspectors. The Mayor and Council are responsible for certifying inspectors.

Inspectors are paid by landlords at the time of inspection at a standard rate set by the city, according to the rental housing code.

Properties are required to be inspected once every three years, according to the rental housing code. Landlords are given 180 days of notice to arrange for an inspection. This is based on best practices set by the International Property Maintenance Code, according to Laura McBride, City Hall’s Rental Housing Officer.

Asean Townsend said, “She can have her man come in, close his eyes, and walk out.”

Inspectors are paid by owners or owner’s agents, at a rate set by the city.

Johnny Shipley, another student-tenant in attendance, explained that his floor is uneven, which has contributed to back pain and has caused back spasms. He added that the heater in his bathroom is broken.

Hassan Bangurah said, “As college students, we also have to do our part to make sure we don’t put ourselves in harm’s way.” He added that the age or quality of the properties isn’t all to blame for the issues, “even though homes might be faulty or moldy.”
“Everyone has really crazy stories, and I feel bad for them, but I wanted to say we need to make sure we don’t put ourselves in harm’s way,” he said.

Allegedly. the roommates were told they could continue living in the home after the wall was torn down and mold was found. (Photo Credit: Jeff Franklin)
Allegedly. the roommates were told they could continue living in the home after the wall was torn down and mold was found. (Photo Credit: Jeff Franklin)

The Bottom Line is also interested in hearing tenants’ stories. Email The Bottom Line at Bmkroner0@frostburg.edu if you have a story to share about poor rental housing conditions.

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