An off-campus housing office at Utah Valley State College created Thursday by the school's trustees will inspect and certify housing, plug students into available units and mediate skirmishes over rental agreements.

Since Brigham Young University attempted in January to tighten regulations on housing approved by the university for student habitation, UVSC administrators have looked to protect the already scarce quarters offered to the state school's 15,000 students."There have been concerns (about housing) expressed in the past," said Ryan Thomas, UVSC's vice president for student services. "Our students have a significant disadvantage."

Public outcry against a BYU policy change that would have required all tenants of "university approved" private housing to enroll in an LDS religion class prompted President Merrill Bateman to rescind the policy two weeks after it was ordered. BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

An estimated 8,000 UVSC students living in apartment complexes approved by BYU would have been affected - and some would have been evicted after leases expired because they did not want to take an LDS theology course.

The majority of the housing stock in Provo and Orem is approved by the university, meaning owners have agreed to segregate tenants by sex, prohibit tobacco, drugs and alcohol on the premises and overnight guests of the opposite sex.

State schools have no such rules for off-campus housing. And, until trustees approved the housing certification policy Thursday, UVSC did not have a staffer maintaining files on students' living arrangements.

Thomas said a group of students, landlords and a representative of the attorney general's office has met for several months to determine what - if any - legal support the college should provide in rental disputes. School officials also have fretted about the availability of affordable housing, which is slowly disappearing from Utah County.

As a result of the meetings, administrators agreed to provide an outlet to recruit tenants and a mediation process for feuding students and apartment owners. According the the policy, both parties agree to release the college from liability.

To participate, landlords and student tenants must contractually agree to follow UVSC's newly drafted certification and dispute-resolution process. Certification will begin this year.

Unlike BYU, though, Utah Valley students will not be required to participate in the program.

Participating students must pledge to be at least a part-student at UVSC and agree to try to solve disputes through a "good faith effort" before filing a complaint with the housing office.

In applying, landlords must agree to not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, disability or gender; conform with UVSC's academic calendar; maintain facilities according to city ordinances; and interact honestly with students.

UVSC, however, will not deny certification solely on the basis of gender separation. "At the landlord's option," the policy reads, "UVSC approves separation of living arrangements by gender provided housing is proportionate in quantity and comparable in quality and cost to the student."

President Kerry Romesburg clarifies the difference between BYU's and Utah Valley's policy: His school "allows" the landlord to segregate sexes and "BYU requires it."

BYU's housing policy has come under fire in the past. It was challenged four years ago by the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on behalf of people who believed Provo-area landlords discriminated against potential renters on the basis of gender, marital status and whether or not they were BYU students.

The civil-rights group lost the court battle when the 10th District Court of Appeals ruled that BYU's policy did not violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

The U.S. Justice Department allowed BYU to segregate students based on sex through a 1978 agreement that said the private college could put a restriction on the places students lived for moral standards.

Thomas said the housing office will help students and landlords. Students will have a place to turn if they feel they are being treated unfairly, and apartment owners now can turn to the school if the rent check bounces.

"Students agree that UVSC may hold their transcripts," Thomas said. "That's the hold over them."

Tom Anderson, assistant attorney general, warned UVSC trustees that the policy still needs to be scrutinized. It may need to be re-examined after a trial year, he said.