The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 19, 2013

LiveKato addresses first-time renters

City hopes to help promote neighborliness

By Mark Fischenich

---- — MANKATO — When college students make the big jump from their parents' home or a university dorm room to living in rental housing in Mankato, city officials hope they'll spend a little time looking (at their smartphone) before they leap.

The city has launched, a mobile-friendly student guide to off-campus living.

The site has a bit of the lecturing and stern warnings that might be expected: "Keep the lawn mowed," "Shovel the sidewalks," don't burn "construction debris and garbage" in a recreational campfire, "be considerate," "pick up after pets ... ."

Another section spells out city ordinances on disruptive intoxication, a party host's liability if underage drinking is allowed, excessive noise and public nuisances such as trashy yards, over-occupied rental properties and indoor furniture sitting outdoors.

But there is also plenty of friendly advice on how to pick the right location if you're a partier vs. a quiet, studious sort, what to watch for before signing a lease, how to avoid being a crime victim, and how to access a variety of city services.

And the site contains practical suggestions about how to develop a mutually respectful relationship with neighbors, including one anecdote about how to get off on the right foot with neighbors.

"I hope the way it comes across is that we're in this together — we're not trying to put you down," said Tona Gillispie, president of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association.

It was Gillispie who contributed the story of the "reverse trick-or-treaters" she found at her door one Halloween.

"Oh, that was just the coolest," said Gillispie, whose neighborhood abuts Minnesota State University.

Expecting treat-seeking children when the bell rang, Gillispie opened the door to several young women instead.

"They said, 'Trick or Treat,' and they handed me the candy," she said.

The college nursing students said they'd just moved in down the street and wanted to introduce themselves to their neighbors.

"We just laughed and had a good time," Gillispie said.

When asked if the first contact with other college-student neighbors was sometimes less pleasant during her 36 years living in the Highland Park neighborhood, Gillispie laughs again.

"Every fall, we get a new batch in and in the spring they leave," Gillispie said diplomatically.

Still, she talks about the pluses as well as the minuses that come with young neighbors. One group helps older homeowners with leaf-raking, another did a neighborhood watch on Halloween.

The downside can involve parking violations, noise, messes. Gillispie is philosophical about how some of the problems can arise simply because the focus of longtime homeowners and short-term college students can be on very different things.

"Like everybody, it's positive and negative, and we're trying to emphasize the positive," she said. "They're looking down the road. ... They have different priorities, and being my neighbor may not be one of them."

The work of landlords to instruct new renters about city regulations and about the common courtesies expected of neighborhood living can make a crucial difference, Gillispie said.

"Some landlords are fantastic," she said. "I can't say enough about them, because they educate their students."

Assistant City Manger Tanya Ange said aims to spread that education to all new renters by putting it on a media young people are likely to use. And they're working with the MSU student newspaper to promote the page, including offering chances to win prizes and discounts for people who access the site.

It was clear the city wanted to avoid coming across as a scold by simply focusing on repercussions of bad behavior. The site offers plenty of suggestions that could help renters save money, frustration and more.

A look at the site before signing a lease would remind a student to check the window locks, consider how well-lit the entrance to the building is, ask if the locks were changed since the last renters left ... .

Would-be renters are reminded to think about the proximity of a laundromat, to make sure there's adequate parking for car owners or a nearby bus stop for transit users, to verify that the appliances and plumbing work. And they're invited to check out what Mankato offers via links to the park system, trails, shopping destinations and entertainment options.

"Mankato wants to promote livability for all within our community," Ange said.