Esther Patt has worked as the coordinator of the Tenant Union for almost 26 years. She started after graduation from the UI with a bachelor’s degree in English. Her largest motivator at the Tenant Union is to make sure people are not taken advantage of as consumers. She is “committed to justice” and is saddened by the widespread acceptance of prejudice against students.
What does your position involve?
Basically I am responsible for running the Tenant Union. I am the only full-time staff person, so I’m responsible for a lot of things involving the service to customers, as well as everything else involved in running the Tenant Union.
What is the role of the Tenant Union on campus?
We help students with rental housing. We help them find housing, we prepare the leases, and we help them if problems come up.
What advice can you give tenants?
All the advice we give here is based on real things that happen to real people. We like to focus on prevention because we get about 7,000 students a year and two-thirds of them come to us to check into (a prospective) landlord’s complaint records and check over leases. Part of our philosophy is empowering tenants to be their own advocates.
What are your daily responsibilities?
I interact directly with clients and supervise the staff interacting with clients. The rest of the staff is part-time, and all but one are students. Every year at least half of the staff is new – and they’re very good – but I get asked a lot of questions. I try to help but then let them handle it.
And then peppered throughout the day are other things I take care of. I order the supplies, place the Daily Illini ads, keep track of expenditures and put out the monthly statistics, write reports for our advising committee, make the brochures and the Tenant Union handbook and write the letters of complaint to landlords.
What do you like best about your job?
I like helping people. That’s why I got into this in the first place. I like to focus on the prevention because that’s one of the skills so useful in helping people solve their own problems.
What do you find most challenging about your job?
The two most challenging things are a system that’s set up against the consumers, and consumers who don’t take advantage of the opportunities that are available to protect themselves. There aren’t many good laws to protect tenants’ rights. At the same time, there are no tenants in the U.S. who have got a better deal than UI students when it comes to having free legal services available. There’s no reason a student should ever accept a damage deposit rip-off. But so many will just accept it. And sometimes that’s the most frustrating thing – the people who don’t do anything.
What sort of tenant complaints do you get?
The most common complaints are repair problems. That is the difference between a good landlord and a bad landlord. Good landlords come out and fix things when students call.
The other most common problem is damage deposits. We see a lot of damage-deposit abuse. My mission in life is to get every tenant to take pictures to show how the apartment looked when they left. Four out of five disputes are about cleaning and painting because landlords claim the tenant left the place damaged or dirty beyond normal wear. Get a camera and take pictures of everything. It will save you hundreds of dollars.
What is the most interesting or unusual complaint you have ever gotten?
The most unusual is definitely when a tenant came in and said “My upstairs neighbor’s cat falls through the ceiling.” This is a true story. There was a hole somewhere in the flooring that the cat was getting into so the cat was able to walk between the flooring and the ceiling. The building also had a roof leak that had been unattended so the ceiling of the basement apartment was getting wet after it rained. Since the floor was a drop ceiling with tiles and the cat was walking around on top of them, when it stepped on a soft spot it would fall through into the basement apartment. This happened five different times.
What are your hobbies?
For the last 11 years I’ve been a member of the Urbana City Council. It’s more than a hobby; it’s really like a second job. My other main hobby is working for not-for-profit organizations. I’m involved with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and I volunteer at PACE, which promotes independent living for people with disabilities. There’s also a non-profit Champaign-Urbana area Tenant Union, which basically does the same things as we do here. I volunteer my time because I already know so much from working here.