It is no secret that Southern Utah University is short on housing for the 2021-22 academic school year. Multiple factors play into housing shortages for students including a 5-8% student population growth, homeowners selling their houses in a seller’s market, and the flash floods that led to a city-wide state of emergency on July 26, 2021 that displaced over 200 students before the beginning of fall semester.
These factors created a multitude of problems for students in the housing market. Since the beginning of 2020, the housing market has favored landlords with a greater demand for housing than supply which, coupled with the floods and the pandemic, led to housing issues for students.
Miranda Warren, a junior from Ephraim, Utah, was one of the students affected by the floods. Her apartment was flooded with 4 feet of water which destroyed most of her personal belongings including her car. Warren said she lost roughly $8,000 worth of possessions.
Warren did not have flood insurance that would have covered the extensive damage, and since the tenant-required renter insurance does not cover damages created by natural disasters, she did not have the means to recover her financial losses.
She was renting at the West Hills Apartments through Asset Management, whom Warren said did almost nothing to assist her and other tenants while their apartments were uninhabitable for a month.
“The property management showed up for a moment when the floods happened but left in a hurry saying ‘We have other things to do,’” Warren said.
On the other hand, SUU was quick to assist its students and housed Warren in university housing during her displacement. The university also set up a flood relief fund for these students, where Warren was able to recover $6,000 of her total losses.
“SUU was really supportive,” Warren recounted. “They put us in dorms, gave us dinner and tons of other resources.”
The flood relief fund was provided by the T-Bird Strong fund. SUU Interim President Mindy Benson said the fund was established to help students through financial hardships created by the COVID pandemic. When the flood occurred, SUU reallocated this money to help the displaced students.
“The community and SUU campus donated $40,000 in funds that were immediately turned over to students,” Benson said.
How the Housing Shortage Affects Students’ Well-Being
At one point, the housing shortage and flooding displacement meant 700-1000 students were without beds for the fall 2021 semester.
“What led to the housing shortage was that SUU’s incoming class was larger than normal,” Vice President of Student Affairs Jared Tippets stated. “Since many of the high school graduating class of 2020 took a gap year for COVID, the incoming freshman class was very large.”
Students struggled with finding affordable housing in Cedar City and the surrounding area. Some students commuted from other cities while others lived in local motels.
In an email from Student Affairs, Tippets explained that the university was exploring options to address the housing shortage issue. However, finding a solution was a challenge since many landlords and community members sold the houses they had been renting to SUU students in previous years.
“Those beds that would have normally gone to students were rented to community members or the homes were sold or converted to Airbnbs,” Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Eric Kirby said. “People realized they could make more money those ways rather than renting to students.”
Due to simple economics, Cedar City landlords might be able to exploit students. When there is a high demand for housing and a low supply, the private market generally increases in price. When the situation is reversed and the supply is high and the demand is low, property managers will improve their services to entice people to rent from them, Kirby explained.
“That’s the system we live in in the United States,” Tippets stated. “When it comes to private property owners, SUU does not inspect their housing and neither does any university in the U.S.”
SUU’s off-campus housing website states, “Southern Utah University does not own, operate, inspect, visit, or supervise any off-campus properties listed and does not warrant the conditions of off-campus housing. Potential tenants seeking off-campus housing are responsible for verifying the accuracy of listings, conditions of housing, and all related information and decisions.”
One possible solution to the housing crisis is for the university to create more student housing. However, Tippets explained that if the university were to build housing, living on campus would be more expensive than off-campus housing because of the additional state guidelines the university would have to follow to build.
With this university protocol, students will need to be more critical of off-campus housing because the current market favors landlords — which can result in poor service.
Sadie Christensen, a junior from Logan, Utah, experienced such conditions from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3, 2021, living at 1130 Cedar Knolls South. The property was listed on SUU’s off-campus student housing website.
During her time living in off-campus housing, Christensen and three SUU student roommates had sewage drain into their apartment from pipes that connected to each of the 12 apartments in the complex.
The fecal matter came through the drains into the apartment’s showers and toilets as well as the middle drain that led to the living room.
Emily Burns, Christensen’s roommate, sent a flurry of emails to the property manager detailing the crisis which occurred on a Wednesday. It was not until Friday that the property management responded to the tenants.
“Thank you for your patience in resolving the issues with plumbing that occurred January 30, 2020,” the property manager wrote in the email. “The carpet and pad will be replaced Monday.”
Christensen and her roommates had to live in the soiled apartment for three days while they waited for professional cleaners to arrive, shoveling wastewater out of the apartment with cardboard scraps.
“I was super stressed during this time,” Christensen stated. “I had homework to do, and I was so stressed about the condition of our apartment that I couldn’t do my other responsibilities.”
Director of University Housing Christopher Ralphs believes SUU could assist abused students like Christensen by creating additional university housing.
“I like the idea of additional campus housing because the university can set requirements to help the community build and grow,” Ralphs said. “Also, the university has the students’ best interest at heart in terms of being a landlord.”
Ralphs explained that the university can only advise students to steer clear of specific properties if landlords take advantage of students. However, Ralphs said that the tenets also have a responsibility.
“The students have to know what their rights are in the Fair Housing Act,” Ralphs said. “They also need to make sure they are aware of the responsibilities they have as tenants and to abide by their lease.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, bad landlords can be fined and debarred from doing business with the federal government due to failing to provide safe and decent housing.
To report a landlord to the Multifamily Housing complaint line, call toll-free (800) 685-8470 or (800) 432-2209. This line allows residents to report complaints regarding poor maintenance, dangers to health and safety, mismanagement, and fraud.
Article by: Danielle Meuret