Call it housing roulette.
Each year, finding a place to live in Columbia seems like more and more of a gamble. Roll the dice: You might end up in a flooded or run-down apartment on East Campus, or, in the case of about 600 Aspen Heights tenants this summer, you might end up without an actual place to live. The city is rife with predatory housing corporations and callous landlords attempting some sleight of hand. Distinguishing them from the honest and helpful ones is a difficult task.
Like many — we might venture to say most — MU students, we are sick of playing the game.
Student housing problems and frustrations here are nothing new. The past few decades has seen the University of Missouri transform into a "commuter campus," nestled in a constantly expanding Columbia. Recently, the trend of “luxury student housing” has brought a new set of issues: out-of-state corporations with weak communications and strong legal teams, as well as massive marketing budgets; students signing leases for units yet to actually be built; granite countertops and tanning rooms compensating for shoddy building practices.
Underlying everything, year after year, is a university that continues to admit record or near-record numbers of students with each freshman class, while its own residence halls, dining halls, classrooms and resources fail to expand at the same rate. Every year the pressure builds. Every year a new problem emerges.
In 2013, by far the most obvious and pertinent problem has been with the Aspen Heights “luxury student housing” development. For a multitude of reasons (or, if you’d rather, “excuses”), the complex, which had spent the previous school year hyping itself up as “revolutionizing student living,” was not ready July 31 to open the units for about 600 of its 972 tenants.
Many tenants reported they were not informed of the delays until mere days before they were supposed to move in. They were then presented with a choice: sign an addendum to their lease absolving Aspen Heights of the obligation to have their units ready on time, and temporarily move into alternative housing (such as a hotel or another apartment complex), or deal with what might be a lengthy, expensive legal process to break the lease. Those who chose the former were given gift cards (which, could not be converted into cash to help pay for the associated costs) and have to continue paying their rent, often to live in a cheaper place. The entire process seemed to merit little response from the Aspen Heights corporation, which is busy building more complexes in other college towns around the country.
The events of this summer represent a fundamental breakdown in how student tenants at this particular complex are treated and brought the saga of student housing in Columbia as a whole to an embarrassing new low. We are concerned, however, that as virtually-unchecked growth in MU’s enrollment and virtually-unchecked growth in Columbia housing development continue, the Aspen Heights meltdown will prove to be more of an exemplar than an extreme.
Now, more than ever, is the time to prevent the further complicating and worsening of Columbia’s student housing situation. MU needs to admit that campus is overcrowded, particularly in residence halls, and plan accordingly to fit all freshmen and more upperclassmen who would prefer living on campus into a comfortable living space. City leaders need to clamp down on predatory development corporations and consider options to expand affordable, adequate student housing near campus. Student and other university leaders need to increase efforts to inform students of their housing options, in addition to their rights as tenants, to ensure that everyone can have a positive and minimally-stressful housing experience. And, of course, developers and corporations who build student housing in Columbia need to be honest and trustworthy — building what they say they will build, when they say they’ll build it.
We fully expect to use this editorial space to discuss student housing again. If all these improvements do happen in the near future, we’ll be quite surprised — it’s not the way things seem to happen. But we feel it’s necessary that Columbia’s student housing improves, both in physical quality and in treatment of residents. Renting a house or apartment, particularly in a college town like Columbia, shouldn't have to be such a gamble.
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