Posted: October 11, 2017 at 11:52 pm

By Erin Drummond, Tyler Mason and Nayion Perkins

Fallon Mowles, a senior at West Virginia University, has nothing good to say about her experience living in the newly built University Place apartments. She paid a premium price of $750 a month last year but says management routinely ignored maintenance requests and other problems.

“Management would blow us off and not take us seriously because we were 18 years old,” said Mowles, who comes from Mansfield, Massachusetts. The place “was poorly managed,” she added.

Mowles’ parents finally got a lawyer involved after multiple complaints about the apartment went unanswered. Only after their lawyer threatened legal action did the management at University Place agree to meet with Mowles and her roommates, she said.

Mowles is just one of many WVU students who have expressed disappointment with the newly constructed campus housing in Sunnyside, including University Park and University Place. While the properties are owned by the university, they were built by a private, for-profit company, WV Campus Housing. The university has managed to fill most of the apartments in the buildings but only by moving an expensive dorm into the south tower of University Place (now called Seneca Hall) and substantially lowering the price for apartments in the north tower of University Place.

Some students are particularly upset that the Seneca Hall rooms are much more expensive than the University Place apartments, even though they are much smaller and more cramped than the apartments next door. For instance, freshmen pay $4,100 for the semester to live in a small four-bedroom studio in Seneca Hall, while students living in a larger four-bedroom apartment in the north tower pay $550 a month or $2,750 a semester.

The rental price for University Place South, now known as Seneca Hall, skyrocketed during the transition of student apartments to a university dorm in the fall 2017 semester. In the meantime, rent for the apartments at University Place North decreased significantly this year, even though the units have much more space than the Seneca Hall units. Credit: University Place flyers and documents.

“That’s crazy because that’s a lot for student housing,” said Mykal Manswell, a senior sports psychology student who lived in  the north tower of UPlace during the 2015-2016 academic year. “Now that they decreased the rent over at North, I’m sure they have a lot more people re-signing. But [almost] doubling it at South is ridiculous.”

In the north tower, where apartments are cheaper, renters can fit a dining room table and two couches into the main living area. But in the more expensive south tower, which is now Seneca Hall, there is no room for a dining table or more than one couch. Renters in the north tower can also fit a full-sized bed and desk in the bedrooms, while only a twin-sized bed will fit in the apartments in the south tower.

Prior to becoming a student dorm, the south tower was priced at $450 a month (or about $2,250 a semester) per tenant in 2016. The rent skyrocketed to $4,100 a semester when south tower became known as Seneca Hall. That is about a 35 percent increase in rental price per person.

Jordan Rodriguez, a fifth-year student who lived in the south tower of University Place last year, said the studio apartments were in a good location, but were not worth paying a lot of money for because they were so small.

“I came to the conclusion that living there was just too expensive for what I was getting,” he said.

WVU officials note that the new university housing is both closer to the downtown campus and better maintained than many privately owned apartments.

“I think families and students ultimately have the sense of comfort with housing experiences that are affiliated with the university, versus off-campus properties,” said Chris MacDonald, the WVU executive director of Housing and Residence Life.

In 2012, the university announced its $70 million plan to build University Place in Sunnyside. The plan included the demolition of some houses in order to build two apartment complexes: the north and south tower. WVU purchased the land and leased it to WV Campus Housing, a private for-profit company, to construct the projects. According to court documents, the contract between WVU and WV Housing allows the two entities to split the net cash flow generated from the leasing of the apartments and stores on the ground level, while WVU controls and manages the residential housing units. WVU officials declined to release any information about how the university splits profits from the deal with the for-profit company and how much money each entity has made from the new housing. 

The apartments in the south tower of University Place crams furniture into students’ bedrooms, yet they cost nearly double the price of units in the north tower, which have enough space for a full bed, desk and walking room.

In 2017, the university decided to close down the residential hall Arnold Hall and convert the south tower of University Place into a student dorm named Seneca Hall. A parking pass for University Place and Seneca Hall costs $75 per month and is not included in the current rental price per semester.

While some students say they enjoy living in Seneca Hall, others complain they’ve had a rocky start.

“For the first week, our toilet didn’t flush,” said Liana Chapman, a sophomore currently living in Seneca Hall. It took maintenance five or six days to fix the toilet, she added. She also had problems with her bedroom door and could not initially close it.

A few years ago, several private developers sued the university and WV Campus Housing, arguing that since a private company built the housing, it should have to pay business and occupational taxes, and other city fees required for the registration and inspection of residential housing units. Because WVU is a state institution, it does not have to pay property and other taxes on the land it owns. In 2017, a circuit court judge ruled that city ordinances do not apply to university housing. 

However, the private developers appealed and the case is now before the West Virginia Supreme Court, according to the Dominion Post. In October 2016, West Virginia University began making a voluntary contribution of $175,000 annually to Monongalia County to “equal any would-be property taxes from private commercial establishments operating on University property, according to WVU Today. 

Fallon Mowles, who moved out of the north tower of University Place, says she was essentially bribed to keep quiet about her apartment’s problems. She now lives in a house on Locust Avenue and has cheaper rent.

“We ended up getting a $300 Visa card to shut us up and stop pointing out things any person paying $750 a month would be mad about,” Mowles said. “There was one day we found out at 9:30 a.m. they were shutting our water off at 10 a.m. for the entire day.”