By Quint Qualls and E.R. West
News Editor and Editor-in-chief
Tony Rowland has not had running water in his Aspen Heights apartment for more than a week due to frozen pipes, yet the MTSU junior said his landlord has still billed him for using more water than tenants are allowed under the rental agreement.
In fact, Rowland and his roommates have received overage charges of about $120 every billing cycle since moving in last October. Complaining by he and others led to the discovery that Aspen Heights did not install water meters at every apartment/house in the complex, which has a capacity of about 750 students.
Rowland said he’s being charged for his neighbor’s use of too much water.
After near zero temperatures froze the pipes in Rowland’s unit, the management’s solution was to give him access to water in the complex’s model house.
“If I want to use the bathroom in my own house, I have to get hose water and put it in the back of the toilet to flush it,” Rowland said. “I guess they expect me to walk up there to [the model house] to use the bathroom every time. I went up there and asked the management, ‘Are we refugees or residents?’”
Aspen Heights, off Rutherford Boulevard, is a new student living development that advertises itself as a posh, but affordable alternative to other off-campus residences. The units do not look like apartments. Instead, Aspen Heights, which has eight operational complexes, models its units like single family homes you would find in an upscale subdivision. Rents are slightly higher than other college apartment complexes in town.
Murfreesboro is not the only place where student tenants are complaining. Aspen Heights residents in another state have taken issue with the company, which is based in Austin, Texas.
Part of the attraction is that utilities at Aspen Heights are incorporated into the rent – to an extent. According to a lease agreement Sidelines has reviewed there is a $30 cap for electricity and a $12 cap for water and sewer. Any amount beyond that is billed as an overage.
The bill for Rowland’s residence for December included a $123 utilities overage charge; however, this wasn’t split between him and his three roommates. Each resident was required to pay $123, in essence making it a $492 bill for utilities overages.
Others are complaining, too. On Jan. 28, about 70 disgruntled Aspen Heights residents packed shoulder-to-shoulder to voice their grievances to management in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting that became a shouting match at points.
In addition to the bills for using too much water, the crowd alleged shoddy workmanship in construction. Common complaints included uneven heating in the dwellings (cold downstairs, hot upstairs), poor services, such as no trash pick-up and nonfunctional gates and the high water bills.
Two fully-armed police officers were present at the meeting to keep the discontented residents under control. One individual was ejected from the meeting by police, but he was later able to return.
“You can’t tell anybody what their water bill is,” said Venus Niner, a Franklin-based attorney and mother of a resident. “I don’t think you can legally do this. You are charging people a made-up amount that you can’t verify.”
Kim Truong, assistant manager of Aspen Heights Murfreesboro, said that everything they were doing was legal.
“I live here,” Truong said. “I promise I feel y’all’s pain. I’m working on it; it’s just taking a while. I’m working with corporate to get it all answered for you.”
Stuart Watkins, public relations director for Aspen Heights, confirmed that corporate is working to alleviate the problems in Murfreesboro and that more details will be forthcoming.
“At this time Aspen Heights has collaborated with the City of Murfreesboro and found a solution to the heightened utility charges as it relates to specific units,” he said. “In an upcoming Aspen Heights announcement, we will provide details on reimbursement and the process to submit appropriate payment for utilities.”
As of press time, Aspen Heights had not released their plan.
Tenants and parents seek answers
Theories abound concerning the steep utility bills. Paramount among them is subpar and hasty construction work.
“As a parent I have to express my extreme displeasure,” said Ingrid Rowland, Tony Rowland’s mother. “I’m hearing about units that are not even insulated correctly. [The builders] were in a hurry; they had to fill leases that had been in place since way before these units were built. They were on a time frame trying to get these units up so they could get tenants in because my son had to live somewhere else until his home was ready.”
Another freshman resident Kristabella Hargis moved in Jan. 4. After taking a semester off, she started college this semester as an occupational therapy major. She was looking forward to her new living situation until the frigid polar vortex arrived.
“My pipes froze the first week I moved there,” Hargis said. “Now I am having to drive two hours from Cookeville every day to go to school or to just brush my teeth because they can’t fix it.”
Aspen Heights management told her that the pipes would have to unfreeze naturally. Out of the 31 days in January, Hargis said she and her roommate have not had water for 15. Out of those days with no water, she and her roommate were put up in a hotel room for only two of those nights.
“Everything goes wrong and they play innocent,” Hargis said. “Every time you go into their office, someone is upset or filing a complaint. I thought living here would be nice, and they made it seem that way on the outside.”
A recent graduate, Taylor Pinner, moved out. He cannot afford to pay the overages plus rent, especially without having a job yet.
“I’m not really there that much. I just know it’s ridiculous to have to keep my heat on 70 and freeze to death and have a $100 overage charge,” Pinner said. “I stay with my fiance because I’m so freakin’ tired of that place. Last month we were overcharged $40 something and $96 this month. None of my roommates were there the month of December, and November we were hardly there either.”
Pinner is at a loss for what to do, and he is not sure what is causing the overage problems.
Aspen Heights experiences issues throughout region
Five hundred miles away, in Columbia, Mo., residents of another Aspen Heights development are experiencing many of the same problems.
The complex can house more than 900 residents attending the University of Missouri. Similar to the problems in Murfreesboro, residents experienced later move-in dates than promised in the lease, utility overages and issues with management listening to their concerns.
Parents Steve Pizzolota and Kenny Thornton both have students who experienced these problems at the Columbia property. Both students had late move-in times and have had utility overages from October through January.
“My daughter showed me her utility bill was nearly $300 after one of the first months living there,” Pizzolota said. “We hadn’t had the cold snap yet. We came back from break and saw utility bills from when our kids were gone from $500 to $800 dollars. Aspen told them to reduce thermostat, but the upstairs was boiling and the downstairs was freezing.”
Thornton’s son’s bill from Nov. 18 through Dec. 11 was $552.73, to be divided with his roommates. The amount only increased for the Dec. 11 through Jan. 15 billing statement totaling up to $700.87.
Pizzolota had similar findings with his daughter’s Dec. 11 through Jan. 15 billing statement, which was almost an $200 overage.
“My son and his other three roommates left the first week of December,” Thornton said. “There is no way that is possible for the bill to be high even with a cold snap. Plus, the water line during Christmas burst and flooded half of the first floor, which is where my son’s bedroom is. In fixing it, they left a burn mark on the floor, which I bet the tack on a fee for that, too.”
In response to these problems, the parents in Missouri created a parent group and Facebook page to voice their frustrations and band together to express their problems with the housing managers. The group has almost 200 parents and students out of the complex on their page, which was created at the end of July.
“Parents are angrier than some of the students,” Pizzolota said. “Every response to every response to a problem at Aspen Heights is handled with a pizza party. Utility bills too high —pizza party. Frozen pipes — pizza party. They appease the students with parties, and they ignore the parents. For a lot of students, parents are either having to pay or help pay these overages.”
The parent-tenant group emailed and called enough that Aspen Heights held a town hall meeting Jan. 30 to listen to what parents had to say. The corporate regional manager of Aspen Heights will meet with them Feb. 1 to further discuss these issues.
“My son shouldn’t have to worry about this and neither should any other students,” said Cyndi Beale, another tenant’s mom. “Being a student should be their No. 1 priority, not whether or not you should set your thermostat to a reasonable temperature or paying all this extra money.”
According to an email blast sent to all residents, the cap for utilities will now be at $75 for the “winter-peak months,” and students will be reimbursed for overage charges through the form of gift cards. They are not sure what type of gift cards yet.
“This utility cap was our immediate solution for the higher utility fees resulting from extreme cold temperatures throughout the Midwest and the United States,” the Columbia Aspen Heights’ email blast stated. “With that being said, we recognize that there are multiple factors that could be contributing to the heightened utility costs besides extreme weather, and we will be addressing those factors in the very near future.”
The newsletter acknowledged that some of the problems could be related to houses needing additional weatherproofing with others needing heating systems that need adjustment or replacing. Their complex also completed a property-wide audit to identify which units are working extra to heat the homes
While the parents are glad their voices were heard enough to lead to a winter utility cap, Thornton believes it should be implemented all year. According to parents and residents, management there told them at Jan. 30 town hall meeting that gift cards could potentially be a form a reimbursement.
“A gift card? You have to be kidding me,” Thornton said. “They should be refunded to students’ accounts. Their bookkeepers obviously know how to do that because they did it that when they back charged student accounts in August, September and October.”
In a resident ledger sent Feb. 3, Aspen Heights announced that they would credit their resident rather than using any alternative forms of payment.
Ultimately, Thornton and his group want two main resolutions: a month-by-month lease and the November overages erased.
“The regional manager has finally sent that on to corporate,” Thornton said. “We just want out of here.”
Thornton said that he does not want to result to legal counsel, but could if the problems continue to get worse.
However, more than 20 residents in Murfreesboro have already contacted Niner for legal aid. Any residents seeking legal advice or help can visit NinerLaw.com and click on the “Aspen Heights Tenant Info Sheet” link, Niner said.
“Even if they fix everything, people have been hurt,” Niner said.
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This story has been updated since its original posting.