What’s behind a pattern of homelessness among Texas State University students?

Hays

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — As Texas State University students head into winter break, dozens still don’t have the home they signed up for.

The View on the Square, a new student apartment complex under construction, promised a move-in date for their “current lease term” before classes started in August. A spokesperson tells KXAN News their first advertised move-in date was in August of 2019.

But the building still isn’t ready.

Ferris Zughaiyir, a graduate student, said he signed a lease with The View back in January 2020.

“They were close to campus, and I wanted to be able to walk the campus so I would have to worry about parking,” he says.

The City of San Marcos tells KXAN the company still needs to fix sprinkler issues before they can get their certificate of occupancy.

“Multiple factors have led to the delays over time, COVID being the primary reason,” wrote View spokesperson Michael Harris, regional property manager with CA Ventures.

Harris also pointed to supply chain delays and labor shortages, as well as the company having to replace their original general contractor.

“In March of 2021, the owner took a hands-on approach to complete the project by bringing on additional supplemental workforce as well as being on-site to oversee the completion of the project,” Harris said.

The View on the Square leasing office. (KXAN photo/Tahera Rahman)

The View is not the only apartment to put students in this bind. In fact, another one is currently being sued for similar practices.

Russell Sloan represents more than 40 people in a lawsuit against Haven at Thorpe Lane, another San Marcos student apartment company that handed out move-in guarantees to students … But didn’t allow move-in until nine months later after the last day of classes.

“If you’re saying August, and you have every reason to believe that you’re not going to make August, then that’s just a lie,” he said.

The lawsuit alleges the building landlord and owners, developer, manager, and builder knew they were not going to meet promised move-in dates, but continued to advertise them. The evidence cited includes internal emails between those project leaders, as well as emails with the City of San Marcos.

Sloan said some of his clients were couch-surfing or living out of their cars while they waited.

“They felt guilty that they made the wrong decision, and they don’t want to say, ‘Hey mom and dad, I’m sleeping in a car under an overpass,’ but that may be the reality of the situation.”

RUSSELL SLOAN

Sloan said about 20 of his clients experienced some degree of homelessness, and because Haven told KXAN in the past they had more than 300 signed leases, Sloan believes there may have been more homeless students.

The U.S. government has multiple definitions of homelessness, depending on the department and program, and includes people who “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

A spokesperson for Haven at Thorpe said it could not comment on litigation.

A recurring pattern in San Marcos

“We currently have around 45 student-oriented apartment complexes. And I would say in 42, or 43 of those, this exact same thing happens,” said Shannon FitzPatrick, a San Marcos attorney.

FitzPatrick worked as an attorney for students at Texas State University for more than two decades.

“When you work … in the Attorney for Students Office, the number one issue they have is housing,” she said.

She thinks student housing is a bigger problem in San Marcos than in Austin, which is also home to a large university.

“Do they have some of these? Yes. But there’s for everyone like this, there are 50 others that are regular traditional leases, so you’re not kind of forced into it,” she said.

FitzPatrick says companies like building student apartments because they are rent-by-the-bed, meaning each roommate signs their own lease and pays their own rent.

That way, a company can make more money off of a single unit compared to a traditional lease, where roommates are bound by one lease and a total rent amount.

“Apartment complexes like that don’t count on you moving out in a year, they want you to stay. If you’re a good tenant, they work to keep you there,” she explains. “Rent by the beds don’t worry about it, because there’s always a new crop of 18-year-olds coming into town next year.”

Student housing leases became such a big concern that the City of San Marcos dedicated a section to it in their development code back in 2017.

“If, for some reason, my room is not ready when it’s time for me to move in, then I can terminate my lease, or then I can be given housing somewhere else,” said Amanda Hernandez, San Marcos assistant director of planning.

And, the code states, if a student chooses to terminate their lease, there should be no financial penalty, and the landlord must reimburse all the student’s deposit and pre-paid items within 10 days.

If these conditions aren’t written into student leases, Hernandez said, the city won’t give the apartment company their certificate of occupancy, which is needed before anyone can move in.

Student housing leases became such a big concern that the City of San Marcos dedicated a section to it in their development code back in 2017.

But here’s the catch: the rule doesn’t apply to any of the student apartments we see now.

“The complexes that have, I’ll say, popped up since 2017, were well in the planning phases and permitting phases before this was adopted,” Hernandez said.

She says right now, there’s nothing the city can do but inform folks who call about the real estimated time of completion for their future apartment homes.

KXAN asked if the city could at least post a public notice, like a Facebook post, when the timelines apartment companies are advertising don’t match up with the city’s timeline.

Hernandez said the city’s multifamily report does that and is supposed to be updated quarterly.

At the time of publication, the latest report was June 2021, and only listed the view as a 2021 estimated opening date.

Until new student apartment buildings are built under the new code, advocates worry students will continue to deal with the impact of potential delays.

“Typically these are 18-to 24-year-olds, and they don’t necessarily know what their rights are. They don’t necessarily have the resources to be able to assert their rights,” Sloan said.

He said the problem isn’t necessarily that these companies are leasing up apartments before they’re built, it’s that they aren’t being straightforward about the timeline.

“This isn’t right, and you’re not going to do it anymore,” he said.

Sloan hopes their lawsuit against Haven at Thorpe Lane will at least get developers to be more straightforward with their timeline.

Accountability

Fitzpatrick encourages Texas State students to utilize free advice from attorneys on campus. Those attorneys can’t litigate for students, but can review leases and discuss possible risks.

Although she said the ultimate blame falls on the apartment companies, FitzPatrick said the university can and should do more, like not allowing unfinished housing companies to participate in their housing fairs.

“It’s just an opportunity for corporations to come in and sell their wares,” FitzPatrick said.

She also said the university shouldn’t partner with those companies — The View, for example — advertises that they’re a corporate partner of Texas State Athletics.

Texas State University confirms that The View on the Square is a corporate partner with their athletic department.

The university tells us it receives dozens of calls each year about student apartments not being finished on time.

Zughaiyir said he did seek advice from the attorney for students office but he also wants to see the city do more to protect its students.

“It shouldn’t happen. They should make stricter laws,” he said.

“I feel like they’re taking advantage of students.”

FERRIS Zughaiyir

The city of San Marcos says they have been trying to encourage student apartment companies about setting realistic move-in dates.

Students left with the aftermath

Zughaiyir was one of the students who initially stuck with The View and stayed in a hotel for a couple of weeks until September when they were scheduled to move in.

“And then that two weeks turned to month. And then they pushed it back another month. And then they pushed it back another month,” he said.

Eventually, in an email, The View told Zughaiyir he’d have to move out of the hotel and into an apartment elsewhere with roommates, or his lease would auto-terminate.

“During a pandemic, that wasn’t an option for me,” he says.

So, Zughaiyir decided to let his lease with The View auto-terminate and paid for a hotel room until he found a new apartment.

“It was extremely hard to find a place … in the beginning of the semester,” he said. “I was lucky to find this place. I went to like maybe 30 apartment complexes, and I couldn’t find anything.”

Zughaiyir said the stress forced him to push back his graduation, and he’s now paying for an extra semester to finish his thesis research.

He’s also stuck with bills.

“We have let residents out of their leases in the past with no penalty or having to pay any rent when reasonable accommodations weren’t found,” Harris said, adding that tenants who have chosen to find their own housing while waiting for The View to open are also not paying rent.

But bank statements show that Zughaiyir has been charged rent. He is looking into getting an attorney to help him recuperate that money, and finally close the door on his housing nightmare.

The View on the Square now says move-in will be Jan. 7, 2022, with 51 people currently signed to move-in.

The City of San Marcos says after The View submits its paperwork, a final inspection would take at least a week or more to schedule, and likely take at least one day to complete but could not offer a more detailed timeline.

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