AUSTIN (KXAN) — After one West Campus apartment complex signed leases with more tenants than they had room for, students who were supposed to live there are left searching for new options.
As first reported by The Daily Texan, one first year student, Rylan Maksoud, who was told he could no longer live in the apartment he’d signed a lease for, created a website and began advocating for other students to be fairly compensated.
In the West Campus neighborhood where a majority of UT Austin students live, housing close to campus is so competitive that many of the units begin leasing a year ahead of time.
On Sept. 24, 2017, Maksoud signed a lease with University House Austin, located at 2100 San Antonio St., to reserve a spot for the 2018-2019 school year. An authorized agent for the apartment complex signed the lease on Oct. 4, 2017.
But to his surprise on Dec. 29, he got a voicemail and email from the University House, sending him a mutual termination form. Maksoud said the email read:
We regret to inform you that the apartment type you selected at University House Austin is now sold out for the 2018-19 term. We have elected to terminate your 2018-19 Housing Agreement dated September 24th, 2017. A space is no longer being held for you at University House and you owe nothing further under the 2018-19 Housing Agreement, which is now terminated.”
Maksoud said there was nothing mutual about the termination agreement. He asked University House to pay him the difference in cost between Universtiy House and the new, more expensive place he found to live in, but he was told he wouldn’t be compensated.
That’s when Maksoud built the website. He said 10,000 people have now viewed it and he’s heard from 38 people — from this year and previous years — who signed leases for rooms with University House and weren’t given those rooms.
Maksoud said The Scion Group, University House’s parent company, contacted him after he made the website.
“They didn’t understand why I was unhappy, why I made the website — they called it extreme measures,” he said.
Maksoud posted a document on his website which showed that University House offered to pay him $2,880 to take down his website and to stop posting about the situation on social media.
“And I said I’d do that if they offered compensation to everyone they did this to,” Maksoud recounted. “And she said that’s not realistic and they’re not going to do that, so I told her I can’t take down the website, sorry I can’t take the settlement.”
“All I want is for them to offer compensation to everyone they did this too, that’s all I wanted from the beginning, that’s all I want now,” Maksoud said.
The Scion Group sent a statement to KXAN on Wednesday. Eric Bronstein, the executive vice president of the group said, “Much of what Rylan Maksoud has been saying about University House is not true.”
He went on to say that because of a missing setting in their software, University House accidentally accepted more applicants than they had space for — which came out to about 5 percent of the total available rooms.
“Once this embarrassing mistake was discovered, we have worked hard to be in contact with every resident and to work out arrangements, including both full refunds and additional compensation, to anyone that could not be accommodated,” Bronstein said.
“We fully appreciate how disruptive and disappointing it is for any our residents to have to find different housing for next fall and have been giving all of our attention at making things right for every affected person,” Bronstein continued. “This situation was not intentional, and we have not kept any money or profited at all from this mistake.”
He added that as of now there are four residents they don’t yet have space for next fall.
In the meantime, Maksoud has gotten in touch with people like Jerry Che, who was also told there was no room for him at the apartment complex despite having signed a lease months earlier.
Che paid a $300 deposit to University House and hasn’t been paid that back yet, but was told by the company that the check is in the mail and they will only pay him back around $200.
Now Che and his roommates are still unsure about where they will live next year. “We probably had 10 different options in September and now we’re down to two or three,” he explained, noting that the remaining options are further away from campus and inconvenient.
Another student, Michael Zetune, got in touch with Maksoud because he went through a similar situation after signing a lease with University House in the fall of 2016.
“A couple months later, deeper into the West Campus leasing season, they called us back and said that the 4-by-4 that we signed for — that wasn’t available and they had overbooked it,” Zetune said.
Instead of a “mutual termination agreement”, Zetune was offered a different, more expensive type of apartment in the same complex. Over the long term, he said that move has cost him $60-70 a month more.
Zetune wants more answers from University House about the software glitch and feels that students forced to live in more expensive apartments should be compensated accordingly.
“I think it’s clear from what you can see online, what you can see on Yelp, and on Rylan’s website, this is an issue that’s been going on for several years,” said Juliana Gonzalez, executive director of the Austin Tenants’ Council.
Gonzalez looked over Maksoud’s lease and the other documents he posted online. As far as she can tell, the lease talks about the various ways involved parties could end the relationship the lease creates, but she didn’t see anything in the lease about ending it because the apartment complex doesn’t have any units left.
From a renter’s perspective, Gonzalez doesn’t think there’s any more Maksoud could have done.
“He carefully read his lease, he knew what he was involved with, and when he got a notice from the landlord that didn’t correspond with what he’d agreed to, he went back to the lease and checked it,” she said.
Gonzalez said it seems University House breached the terms of the lease for the students they promised housing, but could not deliver to. She also thinks tenants are likely owed more than the amount of their security deposit. Gonzalez said the displaced students incurred costs, whether that’s having increased transportation costs for moving farther from campus, increased rent or any additional costs of relocating.
“This happened to a lot of students and only Rylan had the wherewithal to get a settlement offer from an apartment complex and slap it on the internet for everyone to see, and I think that’s really admirable on his part,” Gonzalez said. “But there were compelling reasons why other students didn’t have the time or the energy or the knowledge to fight back on their behalf.”
Gonzalez says it’s possible that students were so focused on finding affordable housing that they didn’t have the time to “strike up a battle with someone who’s violating their rights, maybe.”
She added that students can be vulnerable to unfair lease terms and breaches of contract, but there are others in the community — those who don’t speak English or those without a college education for example — who may be even more vulnerable in Austin’s increasingly challenging rental market.
“I hope that the result of Rylan’s unfortunate situation is that everyone who was displaced by this lack of housing at University House gets some kind of fair negotiation to help them find future affordable housing,” Gonzalez said. “Because I know at this point in the semester it’s gonna be hard to find affordable housing close to campus.”
The Austin Tenants’ Council assists between 9,000-10,000 people each year with understanding and negotiating leases. For anyone seeking assistance looking over a lease or communicating with a landlord, you can get advice from the Tenants’ Council for no charge. You can reach their hotline at: 512-474-1961.