If you’ve ever played the game of Monopoly, you’ll understand that when one person owns all of the property, everyone else gets fucked. The same concept applies in our housing market: when one company has ownership over practically all of the homes in a city, they’ve got a housing monopoly. That means they’ve got no competition, no incentive to keep their prices low, and no threat of losing business if the quality of their services is absolutely abhorrent. Unfortunately for us, these companies thrive in college towns all across the country by exploiting struggling students.
This is something the students of CU Boulder understand all too well: the student housing market in Boulder has been dominated by a small number of corrupt companies that treat their customers like swine. So how do they get away with it? And what can we do to fight back?
The primary reason that property management companies are able to mistreat students is that for the most part, students aren't bankrolling company paychecks, the students’ parents are. Since students don’t pay their own bills, fees, or rent, the company is far more likely to get away with unwarranted fees and piss-poor service. For example, Four Star On the Hill, which owns approximately one thousand homes on University Hill, has a notorious record of never returning their tenants’ security deposits. If you research Four Star on the popular web site Yelp, you’ll find that 85 percent of reviewers (we personally counted them) were denied thousands of dollars on the return of their deposits. You’ll also find that many reviewers claim that their maintenance requests were incessantly ignored.
CU Boulder student Becca Rubin lived in a home managed by Four Star Realty when a colony of hornets built their nest in a hole in the wall in her backyard. Becca and her roommates discovered the nest when the hornets began flying through the wall and into the house via the ventilation fan in the bathroom. Becca submitted an urgent service request, and didn't hear back for weeks. After continuously calling to ask about her request, Four Star finally sent someone to take care of the nest. The man they sent opted for the simplest, cheapest solution he could think of: he stuffed a sock into the entry hole of the hornets’ nest. Violà, PROBLEM SOLVED! With their outdoor exit sock-blocked off, the hornets had no choice but to fly out the back of the nest and swarm into the girls’ home.
Four Star is not the only perpetrator in the city, though. Boulder Property Management, another company that controls much of the city’s college student housing, also has a reputation for routinely ignoring maintenance requests, as well.
Isabelle (last name redacted) rented an apartment with BPM a few years back. When her maintenance requests were repeatedly neglected, the results were pretty shitty: “When I lived on the Hill, there was a homeless man who would break into our laundry room and shit in the washer and dryer. It was sad to see, but I don't have to explain why this was a problem. Boulder Property Management's only solution was to keep changing the locks, which didn't matter because he'd just push his way into through the door (it was an old building, so the door was made of mush). Because they refused to change the door or update the security system, this man pooped in the washer at least four times one winter. Unfortunately, he finally got arrested, but not before my roommate pulled her sopping wet, shit-stained clothes out of the washer one night.”
These companies’ refusal to respond to service requests (and offering little to no help when they do) is a clear indication of their egregious lack of respect for their student clientele. If these employees believed that students posed even a minimal threat to their paycheck, they might feel obliged to treat them less like animals and more like humans.
Another reason that property management monopolies can prey upon students is that students simply don’t read their contracts. And who can blame them? They're boring as shit. Lease agreements are excessively long and riddled with incomprehensible legal lingo. But tucked away in those pages are the things that screw us over: multi-thousand dollar security deposits, fees imposed for maintenance requests, extra charge for parking, overpriced and non-negotiable renter’s insurance.
Aaron Mumford, branch manager for Four Star on the Hill, admits that “even though every single student must attend an orientation (a $29 fee) before renting with us, we know that most of the time when we’re going over the lease it’s in one ear, out the other.”
Blake Saul missed a clause in his leasing contract with Boulder Property Management that made him financially responsible for the unpaid fees of the previous tenant. “They expected me to pay the bills for some guy I’d never even met before. They threatened that if I didn't, they would ruin my credit, ruin my parents’ credit, and evict me.” Business practices like these are the reason that CU Boulder offers on-campus attorneys that specialize in claims against property management companies.
Likely the most fundamental reason that property management companies can survive despite the terrible quality of their services is that the demand for housing greatly exceeds the supply.
Nate Moyer, a property manager with Four Star on the Hill, admits that his job is easy as pie. The most difficult process is getting new renters to sign on to a lease, and even that process can be expedited. To get the ball rolling on a certain property, he’ll warn them that there’s another renter who wants to lease it. He’ll offer to hold them off and reserve the home if you and all your roommates can each fill out an application ($60 cash each) and put down your holding fee ($500 cash) within the next 48 hours. Because UC Boulder supplies a consistent stream of student renters, property managers find themselves with very few vacancies. The companies needn’t aim to achieve client retention when one customer can be effortlessly replaced with another.
Boulder’s student housing market has been monopolized by a small number of companies that legally, but immorally take advantage of CU students. But this problem isn’t unique to Boulder – college towns all over the nation are plagued by parasitic companies that bleed their students dry. Their employees have no financial incentives to provide quality customer service when students don’t pay their own rent, seldom read their contracts or negate their fees, and can easily be replaced.
The simplest solution? Research the company before committing, and if they have a history of poor maintenance, excessive fees, or stolen deposits, run the other way. Try seeking out rentals by owner to find a landlord more inclined to treat you with respect. But if you find that working with an ill-reputed company is unavoidable, be proactive. Take photos of your property both before you move in and when you move out. Take the time to read the stupid-long lease agreement. And if you're really being mistreated, break your lease. It's a lot cheaper than the monthly rent you'll have to pay for the duration of your stay. If all else fails, there's always small claims court.
We’ve been losing this game of Monopoly for far too long … Let’s flip the table.