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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Ceiling collapse generates questions about off-campus housing


The ceiling crashing down into the dining room of 1205 Broad St. around 5 p.m. last Sunday, Jan. 18, was startling enough for the student residents who were standing in the next room, but it was not the first time that something like that had happened in their off-campus home. Over winter break, the ceiling in Lucy Marcus’ ’14 bedroom met a similar fate, raising questions about the structural integrity of the building.

“It’s an old lath and plaster-type ceiling and it had been covered up by a drop ceiling,” said Fire Chief Dan Sicard. “So there were obviously problems with those ceilings many years back and they’d put in some drop ceilings to cover it.”

Chief Sicard suggested that the extreme cold and wind experienced this winter in Grinnell may have had an effect on the ceilings’ stability, but was able to verify that the rest of the structure remained pretty much intact.


“I showed the tenants where it happened and showed them the structural members above that hold the floors and the building up—they were all sound: no bowing, no signs of any type of structural damage,” Sicard said.

Sicard could not, however, guarantee that all of the remaining ceilings were structurally sound, without removing the existing drop ceilings for a closer inspection. Although it is unlikely that the residents will have any more dramatic ceiling collapses, they are already lucky that no one was hurt.

“It’s the old style plaster, so it’s a lot heavier than the sheetrock they use now,” Sicard said. “So, yeah, they could have gotten hurt if they were in there. There’s no doubt it’s a scary thing.”

The landlord for 1205 Broad St. had already fixed one ceiling and was cleaning up the second when Sicard walked through the residence with the tenants. Sicard notified the building department, so the new ceilings will also be subject to inspection once they have been installed.

The condition of the ceilings prior to this incident does, however, point to some problems in the maintenance of the rental property, problems that seem to pop up in rental properties all over the city of Grinnell.

“About once a semester, our department works with a student or (group of students) who are in a similar situation,” Andrea Conner, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life & Orientation, wrote in an email to the S&B. “Unfortunately, we have saturated the rental market here in Grinnell and some (not all) landlords have kept their properties in deplorable conditions.”

A student who did not live in the Broad Street house, but who had rented from that property’s landlord in the past, noticed that property owners tend to take advantage of students forced to live in an over-saturated rental market.

“The conditions are sometimes sort of sketchy for the price we often have to pay,” the student said. “It’s mostly they don’t want to pay for new windows, they don’t want to pay for repairs, so then we end up paying the heating bill or the cooling bill way above what we should be.”

Steven Petritis ’15 had a negative experience with a different landlord when he lived on Broad Street this summer. After a huge rain storm flooded nearly every basement in Grinnell, he was stuck with a waterlogged basement apartment that was not fixed until after he moved out.

“[The landlord] took care of really, really small things, but neglected to take care of big problems,” Petritis said. “The day I moved in there was that big rain storm … my room at least was completely flooded and he did not take care of that problem until the beginning of this school year.”

Although a flooded basement or drafty windows seem like minor issues at first, they can quickly turn into much larger problems. Like the ceilings at 1205 Broad St. that seemed fine until they fell down, delays in repair work or outright neglect of a property can have big consequences. Petritis’ landlord, for example, had to inform two students with basement apartments that they had been living in rooms filled with mold all summer.

“He did try to tell us at one point that there was mold that was found—there was a test that was positive at the end of the summer—but that the mold was considered good mold by his standards,” Petritis said.

A possible solution to these underlying safety issues in Grinnell rental properties would be annual rental inspections, but the law only requires such inspections for cities with populations over 15,000.

“I truly believe that a rental inspection program would help clear some of the issues,” Sicard said. “We have a lot of good landlords in town … Just like everything else, there are some that do good and some that don’t.”

The city council has discussed a rental inspection policy in the past, but because it takes a lot of time, personnel and funds, it is difficult to implement such a program. Tenants can, however, seek the advice of the fire department when they move into a new rental.

“We will go out and inspect things on a complaint basis,” Sicard said. “If somebody has something that they are concerned about, that they think is a violation or a hazard, they can call the building department or the fire department and we can make arrangements.”

Residence Life, while not technically responsible for students choosing to live in properties not owned by the College, has taken its own steps to help students who find themselves in a bad rental situation.

“Aside from offering advice (and usually suggesting an attorney be contacted with experience in this area), we can help a student move back on campus temporarily or permanently,” wrote Conner in an email.

In addition, a resource guide called “Living Off Campus” is available on the Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement’s page on

Overall, both Conner and Sicard recommended making educated and careful decisions when choosing an off-campus residence. There are good landlords and good properties, as other students have experienced. Some landlords, like Danny and Joy Carroll, even go above and beyond for their student renters.

“Our landlords are really nice,” said Dylan Fisher ’14, a resident at the Carroll’s East St. property. “They brought us dinner during finals week.”

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