University makes cuts to student services at off-campus community living office

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The Housing Explorer was among one of the cuts to student and community resources made by the University of Illinois's Off-Campus Community Living Office.

At a time when students are struggling with leases, lockdowns, and landlords, the University’s Off-Campus Community Living Office has cut services and made major changes in its office.

The Office of the Dean of Students has imposed budget cuts, staff reductions and restructuring, saying it is a part of the overall 2020-2021 strategy. 

Among the cuts have been the elimination of the online service known as the “Housing Explorer,” which allowed students with information on rental properties in the Champaign-Urbana and to complain about landlords who provided poor housing. 

Despite students’ need for information about housing and landlords, the Office of Off-Campus Community Living made a decision to discontinue the Housing Explorer on June 30th, 2020. Their website states the office is shifting focus to providing tenant support through consumer and safety education for off-campus living. 

The office has shifted most of their focus to lease education, tenant safety, and building reliable connections with landlords, said Dana DeCair, Assistant Dean of Students for the Office of Off-Campus Community Living.

DeCair said the Housing Explorer was originally created to generate revenue for the office while providing resources for students. She explained that there were many factors that contributed to the discontinuation of the resource. 

“When the Housing Explorer was created, the off-campus community living staff was much bigger,” she said. “There was multiple full-time staff that was dedicated to the work. Over the years they’ve kind of cut back on that and there’s been restructurings. Now it’s under the umbrella of deans of students’ offices and legal services.” 

In addition, the resource was hurting alliances that the office had with landlords. 

“[Complaints] would put the landlords on defensive. It wasn’t really building relationships as we wanted. We only had about three properties on the site,” DeCair said.

New direction for student services  

About 20,000 students generally live in off-campus housing. Many students have been challenged to adjust to the pandemic’s impact on off-campus housing affairs. The University’s Off-Campus Community Living Office has provided students with resources to assist in making informed decisions. 

DeCair said on the Daily Illini’s Housing Guide option, which currently provides access to 12 different realty groups found in the Champaign-Urbana area.  

“The service was being done better by the Daily Illini. They have a housing explorer option as well and it is so much better. We were just duplicating efforts at that point,” she said.

DeCair says the off-campus living office will continue to provide services that align with the current needs of students. 

“The Housing Explorer wasn’t beneficial, and it wasn’t the scope of where we wanted this resource to go. We want to see something that is collaborative,” she said. “We wanted to focus on building relationships with landlords so when emergencies arise, we have communications and connections with those landlords to help those students to make sure we are keeping them safe and working together with them.”

COVID-19 waivers lack legal significance

As a result of combining the office of off-campus community office efforts with the Dean of Students Office & Legal Services, the distribution of services available looks different for students. 

This has altered how students utilize residential resources, many of which are currently turning to university resources to assist in overcoming pandemic related hurdles like the COVID-19 waiver, DeCair said.

Meanwhile, the University Student Legal Services website advises students living in off-campus housing not to sign a COVID-19 waiver. The waiver typically requires residents to sign a release, absolving any responsibility that a landlord might incur due to COVID-19. 

According to the website, if a student has already signed a lease, he or she cannot be required to sign a Covid-19 waiver by the landlord because there is no monetary consideration for such a waiver. In Illinois, residential landlords cannot require residents to waive negligence which may include their possible actions that result in the spread of COVID-19.  

The Director of Student Legal Services, Thomas E. Betz said the COVID-19 waivers do not have legal significance. 

He said that from a legal standpoint, the COVID-19 waiver lacks legal precedent, which has resulted in confusion for the off-campus student residential population.  

“An Illinois landlord cannot in a residential situation waive their negligence. It’s absolutely unenforceable. The real test is whether or not COVID is negligent, I would say it would be extremely unlikely.” 

Betz said that landlords do not have a legal responsibility to safeguard residents from the virus, but do have a definite responsibility to safety codes that could result in code violations if not met.

“It would be extremely unlikely for a landlord to be held liable for the spread of COVID in an apartment building”, Betz said in an interview. “Legally there is no duty to protect tenants against COVID. There’s no duty to protect tenants against the common flu or any number of other diseases. Where landlords do have clear-cut legal responsibility is with regard to building and safety codes.”

In Illinois, landlords have a responsibility to adhere to apartment standards and safety code provisions. These standards include providing habitual living conditions, addressing repairs, and providing certain security measures. 

“If there was a basis on which to sue the landlord because someone got COVID, that waiver would be worthless because it’s in an attempt to waive negligence and you can’t waive negligence in Illinois. My view is that it is more a symbolic statement than it is an addendum. I would say to the students, any landlord that is trying to get rid of that responsibility is someone you should think twice about anyway.”

Legal services continues to provide webinars, appointments and online services for students. 

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