Lawyers representing state Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, ASMSU and the city of East Lansing agree that charging multiple months' rent at a time is illegal, according to city council member Aaron Stephens as he prepares to introduce a city ordinance to combat the issue.
Stephens said the attorneys he spoke to justified their stance by citing a 1972 court case that created the Landlord-Tenant Act. The law states Michigan landlords may not collect more than one and a half months rent for a security deposit.
At the Oct. 30 East Lansing City Council meeting, Stephens nearly introduced a city ordinance to enforce the law, though he delayed it until Dec. 4 in order to gather more information. The October meeting did end up focusing on the ordinance for a portion, as landlords and an attorney argued against the ordinance during public comment.
Jeffrey Ray, a lawyer who represents a number of East Lansing property owners, said the ordinance would be redundant and an overreach.
“We don’t think there’s a need for any legislation. Usually when the government's legislating there’s a need — problems exist and they’re trying to address a problem," Ray said. "In this case, there is, to my knowledge, no problem. ... I don’t know why they’re creating a problem when there wasn’t one to begin with.”
Ray said state law was comprehensive enough without local ordinances, especially as state law would override any shortfalls on the city level anyway.
Stephens disagreed with Ray's characterization, saying even if the ordinance would be a redundancy, it would solidify the city's compliance with state law.
As to why landlords would want to fight the ordinance, Stephens supposes they don’t realize certain practices are illegal. The fundamental difference in how both parties view the law could result in a legal battle, Stephens said.
"They have their attorneys telling them that this isn’t against state law, that this is an overreach," Stephens said. "Our attorneys obviously disagree."
Some students even appreciate the ability to pay in advance, Ray said. He added that any changes to current practice would make rent collection a “nightmare,” add more administrative costs and change the way his clients run their businesses.
“They feel without any evidence that it’s too onerous on students to come up with more than month at a time to pay," Ray said. "That’s their perception, it’s not a reality that we know of.”
Despite his counselors' advice that it is illegal to charge more than one and a half months' rent upfront, Stephens said his team is weighing options due to the possibility of a lawsuit from those in opposition to the ordinance.
“Our city attorney and others have told me this is more than legally sound,” Stephens said. “What we’re weighing right now is whether we go through with something like this and then deal with it in court, or the possibility of attempting to work with the landlords and maybe a group of students moving forward to try, and address this in a way that doesn’t involve an ordinance."
The concern over a lawsuit has left action on the ordinance up in the air. Stephens said council members aren’t sure how they will address the ordinance outside of discussing it.
Stephens is currently working on a new version of the ordinance in time for the Dec. 4 meeting.
Annette Irwin, East Lansing's housing and university relations administrator, said the best benefit of a potential ordinance would be an open discussion on leasing practices and the unique situation of student renters.
“Just like everyone, I’ll be waiting to see what the discussion is and what it leads to and what changes may be made," Irwin said. "We’ll go from there.”