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Tenant advocates say lease terms at Towson student housing complex are illegal, as students wait to move in amid construction delays

Aspen Heights Towson, an apartment complex for college students, is still under construction — a fact that came as a surprise to hundreds of students who expected to move in Aug. 22, the Saturday before the fall semester began.

Students and their families were notified just eight days prior that they would not be able to move into the apartments for which they’re still being asked to pay, per a clause in leasing contracts that a consumer protection attorney and tenant rights advocate say violates state law.

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The management company contends that the leasing terms are common for student housing arrangements.

Katie M., who requested that her last name not be used, signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment for $1,224 a month with Aspen Heights Towson in February, expecting to start her senior year at Towson University in an apartment at 101 York Road close to the campus.

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But two weeks after her scheduled move-in date, the apartment complex is still unfinished; Katie started her fall semester remotely at her parents’ home in New Jersey, despite paying almost a full month of August rent as a deposit, per her leasing contract.

The management company had expected to receive its occupancy permit for floors seven and below this week, it said in a Monday email. In a Wednesday evening email, Aspen Heights Towson told tenants that county building inspectors “found several items that are resulting in additional [move-in] delays.”

Texas-based Aspen Heights Partners, which manages about 19 student apartment buildings in the Midwest and Southeast, notified tenants in an Aug. 14 email that they would not be moving in Aug. 22 as scheduled because “of a minor delay from Kinsley Construction,” the contractor, due to the coronavirus pandemic that postponed final inspections.

Aspen Heights Towson, which is managed by Breckenridge Property Management and has a master lease agreement with Towson University to provide student housing, is also requiring Katie to pay a full month’s rent for September, despite still not having a firm move-in date for its tenants or an occupancy permit from Baltimore County.

Breckenridge Property in lease agreements said tenants will still be required to pay rent in full, even if the management company fails “to deliver possession of the leased premises to tenant at the commencement of the term,” according to the lease.

The property management company also said in the lease that it would provide alternative housing for tenants should the need arise — as required by state law — and that once students have secured those housing arrangements, their apartment leases begin.

“It’s not the move-in experience we want for our residents,” Tom Hendry, general manager of Aspen Heights Towson, wrote in an email to Amy Maschal, a Towson student who started an online petition calling on Aspen Heights to refund students’ rent paid for rooms that cannot be occupied.

“Please know, however, we are abiding by the terms you agreed to,” Hendry wrote.

Requiring tenants to pay rent for a building that is not permitted to be inhabited is illegal, according to consumer protection attorney Matthew Vocci and Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Maryland Fair Housing Action Center.

“If you sign a lease with a landlord, and the property is not [suitable] for you to move in, then your landlord is indeed responsible,” Ott said.

Vocci, an attorney with the law firm Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, pointed to a clause in the Maryland Real Property Code addressing single and multifamily rentals that states: “If the landlord fails to provide the tenant with possession of the dwelling unit at the beginning of the term of any lease, the rent payable under the lease shall abate until possession is delivered. The tenant, on written notice to the landlord before possession is delivered, may terminate, cancel, and rescind the lease.”

The landlord is also responsible to pay back “all money” given as “prepaid rent, deposit or security,” according to state law.

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The Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division also wrote in a guidebook for landlords and tenants that: “If a landlord doesn’t allow you to take possession of your rental unit at the beginning of your lease, you have the right to cancel the lease with written notice to the landlord.“

Vocci said if the building is not designated as a multifamily unit, the law may not be applicable; if it is, “it goes to the heart of the issue for the students [and] families.”

Matthew Rinker, regional director for Aspen Heights Partners, wrote in a statement the clause is in accordance with state law.

“Our lease agreements specifically state that the parties agree that the premises to be delivered are the Aspen apartment or alternative accommodations provided by Aspen at our expense,” Rinker wrote.

“We too are extremely disappointed the pandemic has led to construction delays that are causing postponed move-in dates for residents, and we’ll continue to pay for alternative housing at costs that exceed the amount of rent collected from impacted residents,” Rinker wrote.

Aspen Heights has offered incentives to students unable to move in. Those who agreed to find their own accommodations received a $500 gift card. Those who chose to share a hotel room at the Sheraton Baltimore North — the alternative housing option offered by Breckenridge Property Management — with another Aspen Heights resident received a $250 gift card.

The Aug. 14 email was the first construction update from Aspen Heights Towson that Katie and Maschal, her roommate, received since they signed leases in February, they said.

“We were never given any construction updates or any indication there were any delays,” said Katie’s mother, Carla. “It’s just frustrating that they keep expecting money, money, money; we have no guarantees, we have no definite answers.”

“They can blame some of it on COVID, but they should’ve known well before this they were not gonna make their [target move-in] dates,” said Edwin M., Katie’s father. “They’re expecting people to move into an active construction zone.”

The 13-floor development at 101 York Road can accommodate up to 611 tenants, with the first two floors being commercial space.

Since Towson University announced it will close its campus to most classes and reimburse students for 100% of their housing costs during the fall semester, a university spokesman said they have been working to bail out some 200-odd students who planned to live at Aspen Heights, and who signed leases through the university’s Bursar’s Office.

Students who signed leases directly with Breckenridge Property Management do not have that out.

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“It’s a very expensive apartment,” said Kimberly Maschal, Amy’s mother.

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“She signed a lease because [she thought she would] be at school,” Maschal said. “Now they don’t have to be there … that’s bothersome.”

So for now, Katie’s belongings still sit in the storage unit she began renting when she suddenly relocated off Towson’s campus in March amid the pandemic.

Per a 2007 ordinance, Baltimore County only requires landlords of residential buildings with six or fewer rental units to have received occupancy permits for the entire building before renting it out, meaning Breckenridge Property Management is not going against county law.

The county is working to create a licensing program creating an additional procedure to enforce county codes when it comes to rental units, said Michael Malinoff, county director of Permits, Approvals and Inspections.

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