University House overbooks and terminates student leases

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Master of Public Administration Seniors Kolten Moris and Sydney Choucair walk past the over leased University House. Several students received canceled lease emails which resulted in housing complications. 

 

Photo Credit: Ashley Nava | Daily Texan Staff

Plan II freshman Rylan Maksoud had barely adjusted to dorm life when he signed a lease in September to live at the apartment complex University House the following year.

Four months later, he received an email informing him his lease had been terminated through what UH called a “mutual termination” due to overbooking. In the email, which Maksoud provided to The Daily Texan, UH said the apartment type he selected was sold out for the 2018–19 term. The Daily Texan confirmed that at least five students experienced the same situation this school year.

Shocked by the email, Maksoud said the termination was “anything but mutual.”

“I immediately started researching laws,” Maksoud said. “It was complete chaos … (My roomates and I) were concerned with where we were going to live. Everything was going to be full.”

Not remembering anything in the lease mentioning a “mutual termination,” Maksoud said he combed through it multiple times. There is nothing in the lease, which Maksoud provided to The Daily Texan, that says UH is allowed to terminate leases in cases of overbooking.

Maksoud said he has already signed a new lease for next year, but his options were limited and the apartment is $214 more expensive than UH per month. He then requested compensation from UH to make up for the increased rent cost.

Four days after receiving the mutual termination, Maksoud said he received an email saying he would receive no compensation for what had happened, so he created the website austinuniversityhouse.com where he posted a review of his experience with the apartment complex. The website has been viewed by over 6,500 people and has received viral attention from students sharing similar experiences.

Maksoud eventually spoke on the phone with Christina Emanuele, a representative of The Scion Group, which operates University House and 47 other student housing providers around the country. In a recording of the call provided to The Daily Texan by Maksoud, Emanuele called Maksoud’s experience a “tough situation” but said many other students have “moved on.”

“I want you to move on,” Emanuele said to Maksoud during one of several calls. “I know you have other things to do.”

On overbooking, Emanuele said in retrospect it was avoidable. Emanuele credited the mistake to the fact that UH has only been open two years.

“It’s unnecessary,” Emanuele said during the same call. “But, it’s a learning curve, and we’ve learned our lesson.”

After some negotiations, UH offered Maksoud a $2,880 settlement that included both his security deposit plus enough money to offset the cost of his new, higher rent. However, the settlement required that Maksoud take down his website and prohibited him from talking to the media.

Maksoud said he wanted other students to be compensated as well but was told it wasn’t possible, so he refused to take the settlement.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I just shut up and left everyone behind,” Maksoud said. “Ethically, I just could not do that.”

Keith Thompson, regional vice president of operations for Scion, said the issue resulted from a software error that caused the property to be overbooked by about 5 percent.

“We’ve apologized and reached out to all of those individuals (who were) affected,” Thompson said. “This isn’t something we traditionally have to endure.”

Maksoud shared the review several times in the UT Class of 2021 Facebook group, and nine people commented saying they had also received mutual terminations. On Yelp, there were also several reviews describing the same experience: a lease signed early last fall followed by its termination in December.

Biochemistry freshman Najlae Chidmi received a mutual termination identical to Maksoud's.

“Trying to find another place to stay has been difficult and super frustrating,” Chidmi said. “I didn’t really understand how they could just terminate people.”

Juliana Gonzales, executive director of Austin Tenants’ Council, said they have yet to handle a case of a housing complex terminating leases due to overbooking.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Gonzales said. “The terms of this lease contract seem pretty clear. I think it’s worth pushing back on (UH).”