In an effort to prioritize student safety, an Ohio State program is inspecting about a dozen off-campus homes a day.
The OSU Office of Student Life’s Off-Campus Housing Excellence Program conducts home visits, where representatives from Neighborhood Services and Collaboration and the Columbus Division of Fire visit students’ homes to make sure the properties are up to par. So far, they’ve noticed three common problems in campus homes, involving smoke alarms, furnace closets and electrical outlets.
From the time the program was established in November through Jan. 26, two home visits had been conducted. Lately, however, program coordinator Alex Sanchez, who conducts the visits, said the pace has picked up.
About 60 home visits had been conducted as of Friday, but that number jumped to 125 by Tuesday, Sanchez said.
Students can schedule visits online at times that are most convenient for them on weekdays between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., although most days in April are almost or completely booked, according to the program website.
Landlords can also opt-in to the program, which would entail Sanchez and his team visiting all units of the particular landlord or company. Sanchez said the program currently has about 12 companies signed up, including University Manors and Buckeye Real Estate, as well as “a few that are still waiting to submit their paperwork.”
During the visits, Sanchez uses a checklist “developed in collaboration with the Office of Student Life, parents, students and landlords and the Columbus Fire Department” to assess the properties. Following the visits, the information he gathers will be posted on Student Life’s Neighborhood Services and Collaboration website to provide current and future students the information to “make informed decisions about future housing needs,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said he sees three common issues when inspecting students’ off-campus homes.
“The top three issues we’re seeing is smoke alarms without batteries, or (with) dead batteries or missing batteries,” Sanchez said. “The landlord has to provide, by law, a (working) smoke alarm for each level including the basement.
“Other than smoke alarms we’ve seen, (in) some of the off-campus housing there’s not a lot of storage space, so students might store items in their furnace or water heater closets, which is a big fire hazard … we try to work with the student to move that stuff out of there.”
He said the third common problem has to do with students plugging too many electronics into electrical outlets, or “piggy-backing” several extension cords on one another.
He said, however, that’s the reason the program exists.
“The whole point of the program is to reduce the risk as much as possible,” Sanchez said.
Wayne Garland, president and owner of Buckeye Real Estate, said although his company is now signed up for the program, he was initially “very much opposed to it.”
“I didn’t really think it would achieve the goals they were trying to establish,” Garland said. “But they were kind enough to meet with me and go over things, and it got to the point where I thought (the program) would be beneficial to the community, university and students.”
He said he was initially turned off by the program because in the past, he has felt his properties were unfairly reviewed when inspectors would indicate ratings on a scale from one to five, with five being the best.
“A church we just did on Norwich was brand new everything, sprinklers, all the safety requirements, and did the preliminary assessment and got a 4 or a 4.5 and I just thought, ‘How do you ever achieve a 5?’” Garland said. “My God, these things are beautiful, and they only got a 4.”
He said ranking properties on a scale alters the judgment of a property’s actual quality.
“The perception is if you see a 2 or a 3, while it may be fine, your immediate perception is it’s a rat hole,” he said.
Garland said he wanted the program to stay away from ratings “so you’re just reading through a sheet and checking off whether (the property) has each (requirement).”
He said he hasn’t been very involved in the Off-Campus Housing Excellence Program since Sanchez and the fire division representative went into some of his properties, although they have been to a few of the properties in the last week or two. Garland said he hasn’t seen any data from the findings of the visits.
“It’s a program that I hope is beneficial for the entire community and we’ll see how it goes,” Garland said. “Hopefully we’re all striving for the same things.”
Vice President for Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston featured the program in her weekly column March 30, noting that students moving off campus should make sure their house or apartment is “safe, secure and sustainable.”
“Signing a lease is a major step,” Adams-Gaston wrote. “It not only confirms where you will live, but it is also may be one of the first binding, legal contracts you will be asked to sign in your life. It’s important to have the best information possible before you make that commitment.”
According to the program’s website, its goals are to “reduce off-campus risks and hazards by providing students with information and strategies that enhance personal safety and home security, lower utility costs and raise environmental awareness by promoting sustainable living and help students and their families make well-informed decisions about off-campus housing options.”
A representative from University Manors said the company has signed up for the program, however, no home visits have taken place in its units as of Tuesday.
Sanchez emphasized the importance of education in students’ understanding of the best ways to keep their off-campus living environment as safe as possible.
He added that he hopes to see other universities following OSU’s lead, as there are few programs similar to the Off-Campus Housing Excellence Program at other institutions.
“A lot of other universities have called us also asking about the program and how it’s worked, asking us for some tips and advice on how to start similar programs, so we’re hoping that it spreads across the country because there’s nothing more important than student safety,” he said.