Harmony in housing Mark Cullen, executive director of the Vermillion Conflict Resolution Center, speaks to a group of landlords and tenants Tuesday at the Coyote Student Center on the USD campus. by David Lias The Vermillion Conflict Resolution Center (VCRC) will move ahead with plans to develop a progressive rental housing program called a covenant agreement that hopefully will benefit both landlords and tenants in the city.
Mark Cullen, executive director of the VCRC, told a group of a dozen people Tuesday night, mostly landlords and property managers, that the goal of his organization was to help formulate a standardized lease that could be adopted by all rental property owners.
"Specifically the covenant agreement comes out of a desire to help mediate disputes," Cullen said. "Essentially, we want to implement a standardized lease that will include a provision for mediation."
This project is aimed at strengthening relationships between landlords and tenants in Vermillion. The VCRC, Cullen said, hopes to provide a neutral forum for the resolution of the wide range of conflicts that often result from landlord/tenant relationships.
He soon learned that despite the hours of research he and his staff devoted to this project, there were some aspects of the idea that were troubling to some landlords.
One of the selling points Cullen used for developing standardized leases is "a desirability factor." The VCRC, he noted anticipates that landowners who subscribe to a covenant agreement will find renters seeking them out when searching for rental housing.
This, in turn, will give landowners the ability to choose whom they rent to from a wider pool of interested parties.
"We see you wanting to buy into it as landowners and as tenants," Cullen said. "One of those benefits is an economic incentive for landowners. We've built an agreement with The University of South Dakota and the city of Vermillion to advertise housing units of landowners who have agreed to participate in the covenant agreement.
"They'll do so not exclusively � not the exclusion of those who don't participate," he said. Properties with covenant agreements will be distinguished from others by being listed with an asterisk.
"We anticipate that folks who are looking for rental housing are going to go out and look for landlords who have signed on to this first, and then go to the others second," Cullen said.
Another benefit offered by standardized leases to both tenants and landlords, he said,
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is free mediation of disputes offered by the VCRC.
"According to my conversations with landowners, for the most part, it's not disputes between landowners and tenants," Cullen said. "It's disputes between tenants themselves that suck in the landowners, and that's where it gets messy."
Dean Spader, a local attorney and landlord, told Cullen he doesn't use overly-complicated rental agreements with his tenants. He instead relies on developing a good system of communication with his renters. Spader said he likely wouldn't use a lengthy, multi-page standardized lease.
Maureen Goddard, who manages several rental properties in the city, said she works with a number of different styles of lease agreements, because of the unique nature of housing units under her care.
At one point during the meeting, it appeared the VCRC's standardized lease concept had stopped in its tracks. A landlord questioned whether development of such a lease would put landlords who felt more comfortable developing their own agreements at a disadvantage.
Cullen said the goal of the covenant agreement isn't to try to cast some landlords in a better light than others. He was troubled when it became clear that such an agreement may actually accomplish that.
A solution agreeable to all at the meeting arose, however, as discussion continued. The standardized lease, when developed, may be too detailed for some property owners, but it was agreed that they should be able to implement as many factors of the standardized form that they wish.
Cullen had noted early in the meeting that the VCRC knew it couldn't develop a "one size fits all" form of lease.
"We've incorporating a standardized lease, that will include a mediation clause," he said. "We have a section in there that will provide for addendums to make it specific to your properties."
Cullen said the benefit of a standardized lease is its ability to provide security to people who are looking to rent a house or apartment.
"One of the things that is a bit scary to folks who are coming out of residence halls is going into their first rental housing unit," he said. "This will provide a little bit of security when they do that. For the most part, all of the leases will be the same with the exception of addendums that spell out things like who shovels the walk, who cuts the grass, are there pets allowed.
"You'll also be able to put in how much the rent is per month, and when that rent will be paid," Cullen said.
The VCRC also hopes to develop a "Good Neighbor Handbook that would provide:
* information about mediation including a definition and what parties can expect prior to participating in the process.
* an explanation of the provisions found in the standard lease agreement.
* tips on dealing with roommates.
* tips on dealing with landlords.
* tips on dealing with neighbors.
* frequently cited city ordinances.
* contact numbers for city offices, police and fire.
* instructions on how to turn on utilities.
* a copy of Vermillion housing ordinances.
* a city map.
The VCRC is a non-profit organization providing alternative dispute resolution services to resolve difficult issues in Vermillion and the surrounding region. It provides these services through the counseling of parties on alternative dispute resolution options, as well as by providing mediation and facilitation services.