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UMass initiative seeks to make off-campus students good neighbors

University of Massachusetts officials have teamed up with landlords and property managers in Amherst to create the Moving Off Campus Online Web-Based Learning (OWL) program that aims to teach students what it means to be a good renter. Its goal is to have all off-campus student tenants complete it and earn a certificate they can present to their landlords.

“It’s just another tool for people to use, for landlords to use, to know they are getting tenants informed about rental issues,” Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said.

David Vaillancourt, associate dean for graduate and off-campus students, said of the 23 large apartment complexes in Amherst, 15 property managers have assured UMass that they will participate.

“We are in the process of tracking landlords who will require proof of the certification,” Vaillancourt said.

The program addresses a range of topics, including finding places to rent, searching for housemates, signing leases, landlord-tenant relationships, state laws and Amherst bylaws, the UMass code of conduct for off-campus behavior and community resources.

Once completed, students can print out certificates demonstrating that they have answered the questions in eight areas, which include rights and responsibilities, personal safety, fire safety and preparing for an emergency, and responsible party hosting and working with police.

Students completion of the program is noted on the Housing and Community Resources website where landlords can log in and determine if a potential tenant has the OWL certificate.

Vaillancourt said the website for Off Campus Housing has sponsored programs offering instructions for off-campus living, his involvement with the Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking indicated a greater effort was needed.

“After attending the CCC in my new position in late fall 2011, I realized that it would be better to reach as many off-campus students as possible,” Vaillancourt said. The CCC is a group of town and university officials concerned with excessive student drinking.

Vaillancourt said both Kamins Real Estate and Puffton Village have been involved, along with UMass staff, Student Legal Services, the dean of students office and the office of information technology.

Steve Walczak, property manager at Puffton Village, said the program is a piece of the puzzle to ensure students are behaving off campus and not pleading ignorance.

“This will make them familiar with the principles of leasing and the responsibilities to the various laws and bylaws of where they’re living,” Walczak said.

The website upgrades and development costs were $19,987, Vaillancourt said, and with staff time to research and write content, the university made an investment of at least $25,000.

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