Stouffer Place apartments in decay
- Dec. 7, 2011
- 1 Comment
The thermostat reads 82 degrees. A rice cooker steams dumplings in the corner of the kitchen. The Wens’ apartment feels comfortable on a brisk December night. But when the dumplings are gone and the temperature drops, the coats come out in their home at 1810 Bagley Drive, in the Stouffer Place Apartments.
When winter comes to Stouffer Place, residents — especially those living in the non-renovated apartments — do what they can to keep warm. Some put tin foil, duct tape, blankets or saran wrap over their windows. Others huddle around secret space heaters that Student Housing, which operates the complex, prohibits.
Shirong Wen takes four steps to cross the tiny apartment he shares with his wife and son. He squats down by a closed window and places his hand next to visible gaps. Night air rushes over his hand. Wen said he pays $150 gas bills in the winter months to keep his family warm.
Shirong, whose wife Fengli is a doctoral student in physics at the University, has lived in 11 different apartments since coming to the U.S. from Beijing, China. These places include student housing at Louisiana State University and Kent State.
Stouffer Place is “the worst, absolutely,” he said.
Stouffer Place, built more than half a century ago, consists of 25 buildings and 283 apartments. The total complex population is more than 500 people.
For a while now, the complex has been showing its age. Of the five former and current residents interviewed, nearly all complained about old, rotten or drafty windows. Others told stories of sewage backup, and, in one case, a broken furnace giving off carbon monoxide. Housing hands residents pamphlets about dealing with the lead-based paint that exists within the complex.
Diana Robertson, director of Student Housing, said the lead paint was only dangerous when ingested and added that if the paint is flaking “we absolutely need to know that and address that.”
According to Robertson, housing has worked to fix the issues in the aging complex, which she said was on par with graduate student housing options offered by other universities.
“What we’re trying to do, as with all of our housing, is keep it up to modern standards,” she said.
So far housing has completely gutted and rebuilt five apartment buildings.
“That’s gotten awfully costly,” Robertson said.
Housing is also working to improve non-renovated apartments. Robertson said that 87 apartments have recently received upgrades including new sinks, counters and lighting, costing $136,590, plus labor.
Rubina Firdous, a Ph.D candidate from Karachi, Pakistan, has received some of these upgrades.
She said the Housing maintenance staff has been “very nice and cooperative.”
Firdous spent 20 minutes explaining all of the repairs housing has performed on her apartment. When her bedroom window fell off, leaving a hole in her apartment, maintenance put it back on. When the same window fell off again and shattered, they replaced it. When her water heater flooded her apartment, maintenance staff put in a new heater. When her furnace malfunctioned and the maintenance man said it was giving off carbon monoxide, she got a new heater.
Firdous said she was happy with the upgrades, but was still afraid for herself and her daughter after the furnace incident.
“I asked for a carbon monoxide detector, and they said you can buy one at the Wal-Mart.”
Robertson said maintenance work is a constant process. Three employees work full time upgrading the complex and fixing problems like Firdous’ furnace. Another employee replaces windows. Robertson said that those needing windows replaced should inform the front desk of Jayhawker Towers.
Shirong Wen said he did inform the front desk of Jayhawker towers about his drafty windows, but has yet to see any results. Instead, the family just puts on more layers of clothes.
Wen said he wishes he could leave the apartment but finances make moving difficult.
His wife’s position as a post-doctoral fellow in physics at the University makes the family unsure of their time at the University. Most apartment complexes require a year-long lease to rent an apartment. Stouffer Place offers the option to rent on a monthly basis.
As plans for new buildings remain years away and maintenance costs rise, the rent at Stouffer Place will keep rising along with rates across campus. The Kansas Board of Regents will meet December 14 and 15 to discuss room and board price increases for student housing, including Stouffer Place. The rate increases at Stouffer Place are modest compared to others on campus, with the cost of a one bedroom apartment rising from $327 to $334.
One change in housing policy will have utilities included in rent for Stouffer Place. Utility costs range from $85 for a one bedroom apartment to $130 for a three bedroom apartment.
The increasing rents and continued maintenance issues have attracted criticism from Stouffer Place residents. In December of 2010, The Stouffer Neighbor Association, which represented the complex residents at the time, published an editorial in their newsletter criticizing Housing for the state of the complex. Former SNA president Seyool Oh said the letter’s author wished to keep his name anonymous because of a fear of repercussions from Housing.
The SNA submitted the newsletter first to student housing for approval, which informed Oh that he could not run the letter because it was false and anonymous. Oh left the letter in when he published the newsletter.
“We are not a professional newspaper,” Oh said. “We are writing a newsletter. We are amateurs.”
In March, Student Housing dissolved the executive board of the Stouffer Neighborhood Association.
Robertson said in an email that housing chose to dissolve the Stouffer Neighborhood Association executive board, which it oversaw, because of “the group’s inability to comply with very basic expectations that the Department of Student Housing holds for the organizations representing residential students.”
The requirements Robertson listed included coordinating with the SNA organization’s housing adviser, submitting a timely newsletter as well as signing a signature card for the student organization fund.
However, Oh said the organization tried to fulfill all but one of housing’s requirements.
Oh said Student Housing asked the SNA for passwords to their list serve and email account. The board refused to provide access because the University’s standard business operating procedures for student government organizations did not require it.
While some have been critical of Housing, others have just moved away. Azhar Hamzah moved out of the apartment complex last year, worrying that the cold as well as issues of clogged drains would affect the health of his 3-year-old child Amylda.
“It’s good for me but for children, it’s not good,” he said. Hamzah said he wished he could stay in the apartments because of its location next to campus and the community. However, when it came down to it, he had to put his daughter first. Hamzah said that, while he pays a bit more in rent than he paid at Stouffer Place, his apartment is always warm.
Hamzah also spoke about the difficulties of adjusting to the complex and a new country after coming from Malaysia. Hamzah, like at least 150 apartment contract holders living in Stouffer Place, came from a foreign country. For non-native English-speaking students, everyday experiences such as filling out a maintenance request form can be daunting.
“When you come from another country, you don’t have any family,” Hamzah said. “You just survive.”
But beneath the difficulties of being from a different country and apartment complex politics, the reality of the situation remains. Many families must deal with the winter weather coming up and figure out how keep their children healthy. And Student Housing has an aging complex, and the responsibility of making it hold together.
— Edited by Jennifer DiDonato
Reporting contributed by Ian Cummings. Edited by Jennifer DiDonato