Paying the Price

Whether it’s dissatisfaction with living conditions or concerns about building timelines, many have found signing a lease with these downtown apartment complexes carries more than they bargained for.

When Dan Hartung, a junior music education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found he would be paying a higher rent rate than other students living in the 8 | N Lofts, he felt trapped.

In January, Hartung and his roommates signed their lease agreement for a five-bedroom apartment at $619 a room. However, over the summer, 8 | N began offering reduced rates.

“Early June rolls around, and they start sending out these flyers that the rent price of four bedrooms has dropped by nearly $200 a month,” Hartung said. “That was frustrating. They left us paying way more.”

Issues like the unexpected lowering of rent costs, ongoing construction and confusing lease agreements are leaving many students in off-campus apartment complexes wondering if they’re getting their money’s worth.

When it comes to situations like Hartung’s, Justin Kieckhafer, the assistant manager of the 8 | N Lofts, said students are bound by their lease agreements.

“People are paying what they signed for,” Kieckhafer said.

Hartung said he understood 8 | N was trying to bring in more business, but still thought the change was unfair.

“We called them and told them that, economically, it would make more sense to drop and sign again,” Hartung said.

However, if he dropped his lease, Hartung would have been responsible for finding someone to take it over at its more expensive rate. He knew no one would want to do that.

In addition to lowering rental costs, 8 | N also began offering six- to 10-month leasing options over the summer. Hartung and his roommates only had the option to sign up for a one-year lease.

8 | N lofts in Lincoln. Photographed on Sept. 21.

“That was another thing that made us feel like we got taken advantage of because we were college students,” Hartung said.

The disappointment grew when Hartung arrived on move-in day. The floor was unfinished, the elevator wasn’t working, hallways were left uncarpeted and there were gashes on some of the walls.

“So we thought the rooms at least would be pretty nice, but the floor was covered in drywall and plaster,” Hartung said. “They were in a hurry to get the place done and didn’t clean anything.”

From left to right: a mess in the 7th floor hallway of 8 | N, a hot tub that wasn't ready upon move in, another mess in the 7th floor hallway of 8 | N. Courtesy photos.

Hartung said the windows of his 7th-floor room didn’t have screens; he could reach out and touch the large “8 | N” sign illuminating the side of the building.

It took two weeks for the screens to be placed, Hartung said. It’s another item on a list of problems that outweighs any of the positive experiences he’s had living at 8 | N.

“It’s something that should be taken care of,” he said. “Granted we can live in it and that’s fine, but seriously? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

"That was another thing that made us feel like we got taken advantage of because we were college students."

- Dan Hartung

Kieckhafer explained that 8 | N was waiting on all the shipments to come in before installing the screens, so all the screens could be installed at the same time.

8 | N Lofts is not the only student apartment complex near campus that has been in a hurry to get students in its doors. In fact, rushed construction seems to be a common theme between buildings such as Latitude and Prime Place.

Latitude’s construction began in April 2014, and the building opened its doors to students the week before school started on Aug. 24, 2015.

Prime Place, a smaller facility with only 126 units, completed its main construction in little more than a year. The complex’s building permit was approved in June of 2014, and the apartment opened its doors to students on Aug. 18, 2015.

Work on the 8 | N Lofts began in June of 2015, and students were able to move in on Aug. 16 of this year.

But while many students have moved into unfinished complexes, not all tenants have an issue with it. Nelly Fry, a junior political science and history major at UNL, said she enjoys living at the Aspen Heights apartments, which began construction last year in March. Although the elevator was not functioning properly and landscaping work was incomplete when she moved in this August, Fry said she believes the building was in relatively good condition on her move-in day.

“It didn’t look like some of the other places,” Fry said. “We didn’t have any problems with our room.”

Nevertheless, the five construction companies that took part in the Aspen building project face a combined total of $115,000 in fines issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After a worker was fatally injured at the Aspen Heights job site on June 24, 2015, OSHA also cited a Missouri-based drilling contractor for three serious safety violations.

Problems like safety violations and disappointing move-in days are not necessarily the result of fast-paced construction. According to Zhigang Shen, a professor of construction engineering and management at UNL, construction projects that span a little more than a year are not uncommon.

“It depends on the availability of resources, including labor, material, equipment and subcontractors,” Shen said. “The schedule could be arranged for 14 to 18 months from project approval to completion. Shorter construction durations like 14 to 16 months is possible with an increased number of workers, or allowing overtime.”

Still, Shen said the ongoing construction at some of these apartment complexes is not consistent with good construction management practices. He said the interruption to occupants caused by construction could be minimized by only letting students move onto completely finished floors.

Shen also said the complexes should know their construction schedule and be transparent about it with people who might be affected by changes within it.

“Construction schedules change all the time,” Shen said. “But stakeholders should know this way ahead of time. It shouldn’t be news to them. If you build a student dorm, you cannot miss the deadline of when school starts.”

Shen, who said construction companies should not be doing major projects like painting once people have moved in, suspects the owners were simply in a rush to start business.

“Basically, they should not let students move in with those kind of conditions,” Shen said. “I suppose they are under pressure.”

Steve Bowen, an assistant professor of practice in construction management at UNL, said the construction company’s inability to develop a timeline may be another reason why construction continued even as students moved in.

“I think they were poorly scheduled,” Bowen said. “I think it’s possible they didn’t even do a schedule.”

While some say it looks like bad business, opening doors to students before construction is entirely finished is not illegal. As long as these apartment buildings acquire a certificate of occupancy, they can move tenants in at any time. To get the certificate, which confirms that the building meets certain codes and laws, the apartment complexes must undergo inspection by Lincoln’s Building and Safety Department.

Brandon Garrett, a planner for the City of Lincoln, said the inspectors are only looking to make sure the structure is suitable for living, not entirely complete.

“We make sure it’s safe and that the plumbing was done correctly,” Garrett said. “Messes aren’t part of city code.”

But many students cannot forget these “messes,” and often turn to lawyers for legal help. Jeffrey White, an attorney with UNL Legal Services, said the last five years have seen noticeable increases in tenant-related cases.

Student Legal Services reviews more than 1,200 cases each year, and roughly one-fourth of them are tenant cases.

The increase occurred as large, student-geared apartments emerged in downtown Lincoln. The complexes are generally owned by outside companies, which can complicate things for students.

“They’re a different breed of landlord,” White said.

White said he has seen certain trends with these tenant cases. Although he would not name specific apartments, White said some landlords are fining their tenants for noise complaints. Students who do not know better may hand over their money, but this practice is not legally enforceable by the Landlord Tenant Act, White said.

“It’s hard because this is a vulnerable population,” he said.

White said another trend is apartments asking for several months of rent payment at once. A statute in the Landlord Tenant Act explicitly prohibits landlords from asking for more than a month’s rent at a time, but some complexes ask for as much as four months’ rent in advance, he said.

“We are seeing it more with the new companies that are ignoring these rules,” he said.

White said students looking to sign leases should exercise caution, especially for the downtown apartments. He warns against applying to these apartments online without serious consideration. According to White, as soon as landlords want to turn these applications into leases, they can.

“The most important thing to understand right now is that these companies have added a couple thousand beds to the area,” White said. “The renters have all the leverage right now. So for the prospective renters, if they’re getting into a situation where they feel uncomfortable, they can walk away and find something better or ask for that lease to be changed.”

White said international students are particularly vulnerable to getting into bad renting situations. They are often rushed to find rooms almost as soon as they get to the U.S. and might not fully read the lease agreements which are often 25 to 30 pages long.

“The people who are renting the units have a lot more information than students do, and I think they are using this to their advantage,” White said. “They know more about the markets than students do, and it allows them to send the message that their product is scarcer than it actually is. It creates a false sense that if they don’t sign the lease they won’t have a place to live.”

But for people like Hartung, this is knowledge gained after leases are already signed. The concern now is where to go from here.

Hartung continues to pay a higher rent to live in 8 | N Lofts even though he was one of the first people who committed to living there.

Recently, he has been talking to a lawyer from his hometown of Aberdeen, South Dakota, although they have seen no progress in their efforts to reduce the rent or shorten his lease term.

What he really hopes his experience can do is serve as an example for other students.

“I don’t want to let them get away with this,” he said. “I don’t want others to get taken advantage of.”