WHEN COMMUNITIES COLLIDE
2013 Associated Collegiate Press Second Place Feature Story of the Year
It’s a typical spring day in Eugene, Oregon—sixty degrees and partially sunny, with rain clouds billowing in the distance. Living in a region saturated with rain for 144 days of the year, most Eugene residents are not fazed by the inevitable showers creeping toward the city. Katie Morrison, however, shudders at the thought of storms in the forecast.
“When it’s raining outside, it’s usually raining in my closet,” says the University of Oregon senior, gesturing toward the decaying walls meant to protect her clothing.
For many student-renters like Morrison, a leaky roof is only one of many maintenance concerns. But her biggest worry is whether the problems will ever get repaired.
Paper-thin walls, a toilet ingloriously dubbed a “dinosaur,” malfunctioning door knobs, and nonexistent water pressure are just some of the issues Morrison says plague her rental property. When a new problem arises—which she estimates to be almost daily—she says she is quick to report her complaint to the property management company that oversees her home. The company says it deals promptly with complaints. Morrison disagrees.
“They say they will come and fix it when they can,” says Morrison. “But they don’t take me seriously.”
University of Oregon senior Katie Morrison says she has many problems with her off-campus rental. Her biggest problem is a leak in her closet. When it rains she says she has to move her boots out of the back of the closet so they are not damaged.
Stories like Morrison’s are common in the communities encircling the University of Oregon. In a time of mounting tuition costs and rising enrollment, many cash-strapped students are flocking to the neighborhoods surrounding campus in search of the cheapest and most convenient places to live. But as the demand for housing increases, students are clashing with landlords and property managers over what some say are increasingly unsuitable rental conditions, while property managers say inconsistent reporting makes it tough to deal with problems. Meanwhile, private homeowners who suddenly find themselves surrounded by ‘For Rent’ signs are struggling for a say in the future of their neighborhoods.
Several factors have contributed to livability issues in student rental housing. At the heart of the issue is the heart of Eugene: the University of Oregon. Whether it’s the flashy uniforms, athletic triumphs, or innovative curriculum, there’s no disputing the popularity of the Oregon Ducks. As a result, enrollment at Oregon’s flagship university has swelled over the past decade. Since 2002, total enrollment has jumped 22 percent to 24,591 students in the 2012-2013 school year.
The University of Oregon does not offer guaranteed on-campus housing for first-year students. According to Fall 2012 enrollment statistics, 20 percent of freshmen didn’t live on campus, although some did so by choice.
“We don’t use the word ‘guaranteed’, but we do have space,” says Michael Griffel, director of housing at the University of Oregon. “We don’t know what enrollment is going to do and we are very concerned about making promises that, at some point, we won’t be able to keep.”
The University of Oregon increased its housing offerings by opening the Global Scholars Hall in September 2012. Yet some Ducks say the price tag restricts them from living there. It costs between $11,737 and $17,766 for room and board this academic year. The cheapest rooms here are roughly $2,000 more expensive than other comparable dorms on campus.
As a result, many students are migrating to the most affordable residences close to campus, and demand for rental real estate has risen alongside enrollment. Apartment buildings are continually popping up in the most densely populated student communities says Laura Fine Moro, a landlord-tenant attorney who works with students, but the remaining homes are growing scarce and many are in poorer condition.
“It’s a shame that so many older homes are being torn down and apartment complexes are going up,” says Moro. “But so many older homes have deferred maintenance and are not a quality place for students to live.”
The City of Eugene has attempted to ease livability problems through its Rental Housing Program, which requires all rental properties under the city’s jurisdiction to adhere to basic standards in order to be occupied by tenants. The housing code addresses structural integrity, plumbing, heating, and weatherproofing, as well as criteria including smoke detection and security. When problems arise, the landlord or property manager is given ten days to repair the issue after being notified of the complaint in writing. If a rental property fails to comply with this code, occupants are entitled to file a formal complaint with the City of Eugene Code Compliance office, initiating an inspection.
Says Eugene Code Compliance inspector Mark Tritt, “The most common complaints we receive are for issues regarding mold, plumbing, and heating.”
But it is unclear whether the program has succeeded in mitigating student rental property complaints. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the City of Eugene, 6 percent of Eugene renters have filed complaints against their homeowner or property manager in the last three years. However, 65 percent of these subjects reported that their issue was unresolved. Tritt said the city does not distinguish between student and non-student renters, and that he is unsure whether those numbers represent an increase.
Compounding the problem, says Moro, is the fact that students are largely unaware of their rental rights or fear retaliation from property managers. Indeed, the city survey found that top reasons renters failed to report problems were fear of eviction or an increase in rent. The result? Many renters often don’t report problems at all.
Immediately after moving into her South University rental, Chelsea Schmitt says she and her three roommates discovered that their house was teeming with mold. It crept into kitchen drawers, rendering many of them unusable. But the biggest problem lies in the basement, she says, where a combination of leaky plumbing and broken lighting has resulted in an unwelcoming atmosphere.
“You can’t really see it because it’s so dark, but you can smell [it.] It’s like instantly there is something not right,” Schmitt says.
Though the prospect of doing laundry in the basement fills her with dread, she and her roommates have only reported a few of their problems.
“We’re all graduating this year, so we’ve been through it a lot and it’s just kind of like, ‘Well, we’ll just deal with it. It’s only five more weeks,’” she says.
Sarah Vail, a property manager with Jennings Group, Inc., says that they have received no complaints of mold from Schmitt’s address.
But even those who reported their problems two years ago say they see mixed results. Senior Adam Paikowsky and his five housemates suspected the wiring in their century-old rental home was malfunctioning. After experiencing several electrical surges each day, Paikowsky became concerned and notified Stewardship Properties about the issue.
Adam Paikowsky is a senior at the University of Oregon. The house he and his roommates were renting burnt down two years ago due to an electrical fire.
“Our breaker would trip so frequently that if you were using the microwave while watching TV, the power to our house would just go off,” he says.
The housemates say they took turns calling their property management company to insist that a repairman address the problem. Stewardship Properties sent someone over to look at the breaker box.
“He was the same guy they would send anytime we had a problem with our house. He was basically a one-stop-shop kind of handyman,” Paikowsky says. “For about a week, things would be fine, but then the breaker switching would happen all over again.”
In the early morning of February 26, 2011, a fire consumed their home, ignited by a single flame that Paikowsky says originated from an electrical outlet.
With nothing but the charred scraps of an uninhabitable home remaining, the fire victims were left scrambling to find a new house. Stewardship did not offer them alternate accommodations, they said, so the housemates packed their undamaged belongings and moved back into the overcrowded dorms for the rest of their sophomore year.
The housemates considered legal action. But because none of their complaints were documented in writing, their plans were quickly extinguished.
“Had we known better, we should have kept proper documentation at the time,” says roommate Andrew Keller. “Part of the blame falls on us, because we had a legitimate issue and we let it go unresolved.”
Bill Syrios, owner of Stewardship, said that the cause of the fire was electrical, and that his company was regrettably unable to help the tenants afterward.
“It was a difficult situation because they had to be relocated,” he said. “I don’t blame them for being frustrated, but we didn’t have many options.”
Like many student tenants who have never rented a home before coming to college, the fire victims were not fully aware of their rental rights, says housing attorney Moro.
“A good basic tool is to write a letter giving a historical perspective that reminds the landlord or manager that [you] notified [the manager] on this date, and the number of conversations you’ve had with as much specificity as possible, then make the request plainly for the repairs to be made,” she says.
The City of Eugene keeps a database of complaints against property management companies. Between the years of 2005 and 2013, it lists Bell Real Estate as having the highest number of complaints, followed by Stoneridge 1, Von Klein Property Management, Emerald Property Management, and Stewardship Properties. However, that list does not account for the size of each company.
Morrison, with the rainy closet, rents her home from Von Klein Property Management, which oversees about 1,100 units throughout Eugene. It is the second largest student rental housing operation in Lane County, and its highest concentration of properties is located in the West University neighborhood—which is almost entirely inhabited by students.
While Morrison says some of her complaints have been properly addressed, she says the number of her unresolved issues greatly outnumber the pleasant experiences.
“I think they get overwhelmed with all the repairs they have, but that’s not our problem,” she says.
Von Klein Property Management, however, believes Morrison’s concerns are exaggerated. Though the company acknowledges that some complaints go unresolved, owner Larry Von Klein says his company is working hard to protect its reputation.
He says that students can be inconsistent communicators. They often file for work orders but don’t ultimately give contractors permission to enter their homes or fail to return phone calls to set up repairs.
He adds that many tenants have had very positive things to say about renting from the company.
“My wife has a box full of thank-you notes written by students that were under our umbrella for four years,” Von Klein says. “We take a lot of pride in this.”
Representatives from Jennings and Stewardship also defended their companies, saying that allowing homes to fall into disrepair is simply not good for business.
“We don’t ignore complaints,” said Vail, from Jennings Groups, Inc. “We obviously want to take care of our properties, because it’s damaging to have homes with maintenance issues.”
Tension over off-campus student housing is not limited to the University of Oregon. As enrollment surges in colleges across the nation, many universities have had to rethink their plans for growth.
Take Raleigh, North Carolina, the home of North Carolina State University. The campus is considered “landlocked”—meaning expansion beyond current campus borders is not a viable option. A decade ago, Raleigh residents observed an unprecedented number of students living in poor rental property conditions near campus and in neighborhoods that were once exclusively occupied by private homeowners.
North Carolina State University ultimately made room for elaborate student apartment housing on its Centennial Campus, but the city of Raleigh is still struggling to find a more permanent solution.
Private homeowners like Carolyn Jacobs are dissatisfied with landlords and property managers who they say buy homes to rent in residential areas but don’t properly maintain them.
The same phenomenon has occurred in Eugene, leading to tension between private homeowners and their student neighbors. Communities such as the Fairmount and South University neighborhoods, which once contained very few students, are now seeing more rentals, leading to conflicts over the changing feel of the area.
“As soon as you start having a few rentals, the block looks different. The grass isn’t cut, dandelions are all over, there are bushes overgrown—maybe the paint is peeling,” says South University neighborhood resident Carolyn Jacobs. “Then, all of a sudden, no families want to buy the house next door. Who wants to spend $500,000 to live in a house when the property next door looks like crap?”
A 2011 report backed by the city found that, in campus neighborhoods, “there is a strong incentive to convert single-family, owner-occupied homes to rental properties.” The Neighborhood Livability Working Group, which was comprised of city and university officials, homeowners, property managers and students, wrote that “the livability and stability of a neighborhood can deteriorate as the proportions of rental property grows and is followed by disinvestment or disinterest by committed property owners. Once the cycle starts, it can gain momentum and be difficult to arrest as long-term residents grow tired of the worsening conditions and put their homes up for sale.”
The report found that crime rates are higher in neighborhoods that are heavily scattered with students. The West University neighborhood, for example, is comprised of 99 percent rentals—most of which have student tenants. It accounts for 15 percent of all the crimes in Eugene, handily leading the surrounding neighborhoods in personal, property and behavioral offenses. Between 2006 and 2010, arrests in the West and South University neighborhoods made for noise, disorderly conduct, and alcohol-related violations have increased. In South University alone, there were 2.5 times more of these types of arrests in 2010 than in 2006.
In response to these statistics, private homeowners are fighting back any way that they can. This year, the city enacted the controversial “Social Host” Ordinance, which fines violators up to $1,000 for hosting disruptive house parties.
Still, some private homeowners living near the University of Oregon are less concerned about rowdy collegians than they are fed up with landlords and property managers who they say snatch up lots for rental purposes and then disappear.
“The problem is not about students or tenants, it’s what happens when there are landlords who aren’t there and don’t care,” says Jacobs. “Once places start falling out of shape, then the whole neighborhood starts getting a negative reputation. I think our neighborhood is doomed.”
But defining the responsible party is oftentimes as nebulous as the rain clouds that torment Katie Morrison. As a common business strategy, many landlords purchase rental properties and hire property management companies to oversee their investment. Frequently, says Moro, the owners of these houses don’t want to pay for the repair, so the property management companies get stuck in the middle.
“Ultimately, though, the property management company has the obligation to make sure the place is fixed,” Moro says.
Michael Griffel is the Housing Director at the University of Oregon. The residence hall behind him, called the Global Scholars Hall (GSH), is the newest on campus. A two-person suite with a bathroom costs $16,710 per academic year with a standard meal plan.
As the issue of off-campus student housing reaches a head, there appears to be no clear solution. Some stakeholders, like Director of Housing Michael Griffel, are advocating for the University of Oregon to expand its housing options in order to attract students back to campus.
“Statistics show students that live on-campus have a better chance to succeed academically,” says Griffel.
But for now, he says, his office is focusing on updating current on-campus housing and has no official plans to build.
Others, like Andrew Keller, simply hope student renters become more informed of their rights. “As a student renter you need to be really proactive and find out as much information on the property as possible before signing the lease,” he says. “I think a lot of property managers are able to get away with things because their tenants just don’t know their rights.”
Back at Katie Morrison’s house, the spring sunlight is dimming. She hurriedly removes her leather boots and other valuable items from her closet, just in time for the rain clouds to arrive.
Though she will move out after graduating in June, she says the day her lease is terminated couldn’t come sooner. This student renter says she is tired of living with maintenance issues and trying to take care of problems herself. On top of that, she says her property manager is raising the rent next year.
“Eugene is running out of housing and they know we’re desperate,” Morrison says. “But, they’re going to rent it easily because kids need the location.”