Water shortage brings students’ residential rights issue to the forefront

 

Second-year Stetson Cooper has taken 10 showers across six different residential buildings in less than two weeks.

“People ask if I need showers a lot still,” Cooper said. “I’m comfortable being known as the person who asks for showers, it’s just a strange thing to be known as.”

Cooper is a resident of the Intensive Quiet or “Y” Dorm which has been experiencing extensive periods without hot water since Orientation Week in August. Despite multiple work requests by residents, the hot water in Y has been sporadic for weeks. Behind the good-natured humor of some residents, there is a sense of frustration. An email sent to the student Forum by Y resident, second-year Eli Barrett, brought attention to the rights – or lack thereof – of on-campus students.  

“Once again my dorm is without hot water,” Barrett wrote. “It goes without saying that is unacceptable. At this point, I’m beginning to suspect that the problem here lies not with the water heater, but with the administration’s inability to adequately address basic problems. A landlord cannot reasonably expect to maintain tenants while failing to provide rudimentary services.”

Other students have also described their relationship with the school as a tenant-landlord situation, a label that administration does not agree with.

“We were told by our old General Counsel that the relationship in the residence halls is not a landlord-tenant relationship,” Dean of Student Affairs Tracy Murry said. “It’s more like a hotel, it’s more of a management.”

Last year, Student Affairs had to remove an individual living in a residential hall who was no longer a student.

“If you’re a student and you sign a housing agreement and then you are no longer a student, the housing contract becomes invalid,” Murry said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve signed a 12-year lease or whatever because, in the contract, you’re not listed as a person, you are listed as a student.”

Murry does not believe that this discrepancy should detract from the responsibility of the institution to provide students with adequate living conditions.

“If you went to a hotel, and you paid for a room, and you went up to your room and there was something in the room that you thought made it unlivable, then the hotel should provide you with another room,” Murry said.

The shortage of hot running water in Y is not the first instance of a housing issue. Other residential buildings are known to have a largely unchecked and improperly treated mold problem.

A 2012 article in the Catalyst reported that the school failed to hire a special mold expert to examine the appearance of mold on campus. The article noted that maintenance staff were instructed to use Kiltz – a chemical that only masks the growth of mold as opposed to removing it – and that the school failed to adequately address the excessive moisture problem in dorm rooms.

Under the Terms, Conditions, Responsibilities section of the housing contract, it states: “New College of Florida may initiate a transfer of the Student’s assigned space or may initiate cancellation of this contract if it is deemed necessary in the best interests in order, health, safety, security, maximum residential utilization of facilities, disaster, or failure to make payment.”

In section 83.201 of “The Florida Law Residential Landlord Tenant Act,” failure of the landlord to address functional issues of the residence “rendering the leased premises wholly untenable, the tenant may withhold rent after notice to the landlord.”

Both regulations imply that there should be a dialogue between resident and owner of the residence.

“I emailed him [Associate Dean for Student Affairs Mark Stier] before without forwarding it to the Forum or anybody else,” Barrett said. “ And each time, he was like ‘Oh, that’s bad. It’s gonna be fixed.’ And then it was fixed for a while, and then it broke. I was kind of fed up with his responses that were just kind of like polite nothings and he didn’t really take any initiative at all to tell us what was going on, he would tell us when the hot water was back, and he would email us occasionally when it was out and that’s about it. It was just sort of pent-up frustration, not even necessarily with the water being out, but with the fact that it didn’t seem like he felt any obligation to tell us what was going on at all.”

Stier was reached for an interview but declined to comment, stating that the associate director of facilities, Alan Dawson, had knowledge on the specifics of the situation in Y dorm.

“I honestly don’t really think it’s the responsibility of the maintenance crew to be telling us what’s going on,” Barrett continued. “I think it’s Mark [Stier’s] responsibility as our landlord. If we lived in an apartment, we wouldn’t expect the handyman to be telling us what was going on with our building, we would expect the landlord to do it.”

Whether or not residents of Y will receive compensation for the weeks without hot water is unclear. Currently, the school is consulting with an outside party to see whether there are grounds for monetary compensation for students.

“The state of Florida requires us to charge,“ Murry said. “We can’t let people live here for free, you have to pay the amount that is advertised. So, we’re kind of looking into it to see if we can give back a discount, or give money back, to see if it’s a violation of state law. And, if it’s a violation of state law, we’re trying to see what else we can do.”

The water heater in Y dorm, which stopped functioning, caused the shortage of hot water. Each water heater costs $9,000 and an additional $3,000 for installation.  According to Dawson and the director of facilities and construction, Alan Burr, the replacement water heater was installed on Sept. 2, 2015. Additionally, a spare water heater resides in Physical Plant, in anticipation of a water shortage in a different residential building. According to Dawson, water heaters do not have a long shelf life. He and Burr anticipate that, within a year, all of the other water heaters in the other letter dorms will fail.

“Right now we’re just wondering when is W [dorm], for example, gonna go?” Burr said.  

 

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