University of Illinois seeks to have ‘less adversarial’ relationship with landlords to provide more resources for student tenants

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Screenshots of the Housing Explorer retrieved using the Internet Archive.

Following the takedown of the University of Illinois’s Housing Explorer database, a resource for students seeking housing in Urbana and Champaign, the Off-Campus Community Living office shifted to an education-based approach. 

Dana DeCair, the assistant dean of students for the office, said in an interview that the portal was taken down because it violated the Campus Administrative Manual (CAM), which includes policies for various procedures. The explorer was determined to violate the university’s advertising policies in the manual. 

“It was approved, but as soon as we knew, we were like ‘Oh, we gotta get rid of this,’” DeCair said.

A screenshot of the web page announcing the discontinuation of the Housing Explorer.

She said that there was an apartment fire off-campus around the time the office was rethinking the Housing Explorer. 

“It kind of got them thinking: ‘Let’s not have an adversarial response to these landlords, let’s try to build relationships.’ So, when a student crisis happens, we can work together and they won’t just hang up on us,” DeCair said.

In 2020, the university office made major changes and the Office of the Dean of Students imposed budget cuts, staff reductions and restructuring. DeCair said the office shifted its focus to a more education-based one. She said they offer lease reviews, tenant emergencies and overall assistance with housing and questions students might have. 

“A lot of what we do in the Dean of Students Office is working with students to get them connected to all of our resources on campus,” she said. “And there’s so many that either students have, you know, not sure of it, not sure how to get started, some of you do that extra nudge, or they have a misconception that it might take a long time.”

The Housing Explorer was a portal university students could use to figure out the best landlords and buildings for housing and included complaints made against the landlords. Besides the complaints, it also listed ads for rental properties, so landlords were able to buy packages to promote their buildings to students.

She also said that another reason for taking down the website was because it contained outdated and inaccurate information:

“A lot of the businesses buy up land differently. They buy up properties and they switch the stuff a lot. So even if someone looked up a property from like a couple years ago, it might be different,” DeCair said.

Nico Divizio, a senior in political science, said there should be more affordable housing options available. 

“I believe housing at UIUC is relatively strong, but could definitely use some improvement,” he said. “Two glaring examples showing this is the lack of wheelchair access in some dorms, and the recent instance of students being forced to camp outside of leasing companies in order to have a chance at getting a lease.”

He has lived in four different dorms during his time at the university, so he never rented an apartment. Divizio said he doesn’t think housing on campus is accessible for everyone.

“Investing the appropriate time, money and resources into improving the housing experience of UIUC students will only result in a net good,” he said.

DeCair said that the number of students having housing issues keeps increasing every semester.

“I encourage students to post on the UIUC subreddit. I tell people to report it to the city, the Better Business Bureau and then also Google Reviews,” DeCair said. “Because I do think some of the landlords are predatory. I do think they write leases sometimes that do not, definitely do not, benefit the tenant. I think that that’s a really hard thing for our students to navigate. So our job is just to try and make sure they know how to do so safely.”

The Reddit page has been host to many complaints in the past few years, which often name the property management company. But these complaints aren’t structured and sometimes leave out key information needed to investigate further.

A first-year grad student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said their housing experience has had its ups and downs. 

“Housing on campus is not accessible for everyone,” they said. “There are definitely barriers and disproportionalities between the quality of housing that different folks can obtain.” 

They said they moved seven times during their time at the university and lived in both dorms and private certified housing. 

DeCair said she still gets emails from people who were referred to them by their professor for the complaint record or the tenant union. She said that if people are looking for good and reliable housing, they should start by talking to their peers. Then, they should figure out their budget and how many people they want to live with.

“Some of the apartments in our town are really expensive. Like wildly expensive for Champaign, in my opinion,” DeCair said. “We want our students to afford to live here.”

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