Residents complain about housing conditions at Latitude apartments; Out-of-town owners exacerbate issues

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A half-lit sign illuminates the Latitude East building on 608 E University Ave. Nine residents have filed maintenance complaints with the city of Champaign in the past year. Photo by Gwyn Skiles.

Latitude, a five-story apartment complex in Champaign, has been the target of at least nine complaints to the city within the past year.

Located at 608 E University Ave. and spanning the entire block, Latitude seems like every college student’s dream residence: it has a fitness center, a resort-style pool, a rooftop terrace and a secure parking garage.

But at least nine tenants have filed complaints with the city of Champaign over the past year against Student Quarters, Latitude’s out-of-town leasing and property management company.

CU-CitizenAccess obtained the complaints via a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the city of Champaign. The complaints have a written description of the problems tenants are asking the city to inspect.

Many complaints state issues with air conditioning or heat going out for weeks and even months. A complaint filed by a resident on Aug. 28, 2023 said the resident had suffered health issues from problems with their air conditioning:

“The air conditioning is simply not working, both in my unit and in the hallway. The temperature in my apartment is at 86 degrees. I am unable to sleep at night. I have also known many other tenants living in Latitude Apartments who have broken air conditioning in their units. However, the air conditioning is working [on] the first floor where the leasing office is. This leads me to doubt that the leasing office and the management team simply do not care about the health and welfare of their tenants.”

The average cost of rent at Latitude is $1,200 per month, according to a representative at their main office with some rents as high as $1,899.

This was not the only time tenants at Latitude Apartments have had issues with its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, records show. 

During last February’s bitter cold, the heat went out in many units for weeks, capturing the attention of local media, including The Daily Illini. Then, on Oct. 11, 2023, the city filed a notice of condemnation for a unit in Latitude that was not able to maintain a consistent temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit or greater.

Another resident filed a complaint with the city on March 2, 2023 and requested an inspection for their unit after being displaced for over a month.

“The water pipe burst, and water flooded the apartment because of the cold weather on 12/25/2022,” the resident wrote. “The staff forces the tenants whose apartment got affected to live in the hotel without making any compensation and told them it would only take a month since 1/17/2023. Now it has been more than a month and the manager told us to live in the hotel for another month and we still have to pay the same amount of rent with no compensation.”

Michael Hunt was the general manager of Latitude when the resident complaint was filed. He said the water damage affected 15 units in both buildings and the company didn’t anticipate it taking as long as it did to fix. Because the building didn’t have any open units at the time, Hunt said management had to send tenants to a hotel. 

Hunt said Latitude charged the residents their normal rent, but Latitude paid for their hotel stay, assistance getting to the hotel, third-party laundry services, a food stipend and off-site storage.

Student Quarters, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, owns Latitude and has apartments on 22 different campuses, according to its website. It also manages five local properties owned by Next Chapter Properties LLC, which is based in Glenview, Illinois.

The Student Quarters website states it offers “enriching experiences and exceptional results,” but some question this claim.

Sara Pearce, who worked as an Assistant Leasing Manager for Next Chapter Properties in 2022 before she quit, said residents of the Next Chapter Properties LLC buildings had to deal with bed bugs, maintenance employees throwing out their personal items and water damage from flooding and mold. 

She said many residents expressed not hearing back from Student Quarters for months after submitting maintenance requests.

Student Quarters and Next Chapter Properties could not be reached for comment despite multiple, repeated attempts. 

Lack of sufficient maintenance staff

Hunt said there was a period of time when Latitude didn’t have any maintenance employees. Hunt said Latitude had to rely on the only maintenance employee Next Chapter Properties had at the time to complete requests. The company then hired that employee as the maintenance supervisor. 

“He was being pulled in multiple directions at once,” Hunt said. “If I remember correctly, putting both groups together, it was probably close to 1000 beds. That’s a lot for one person to oversee and really give it the attention that it needs.”

Pearce, who was an assistant leasing manager, said she made $18 an hour to perform many tasks, including addressing the concerns of residents from all five properties. 

She held the position for a year. She said for three months, there wasn’t a single maintenance employee. 

“My job [was] to do the finances and to schedule people and hire people,” Pearce said. “It [was] not to go and do maintenance requests.”

But Pearce had to respond to residents who were angry about their unanswered maintenance requests. 

She said Student Quarters headquarters instructed her to tell residents to fix their own problems, and would provide instruction on how to do small things like change light bulbs.

For larger concerns, Pearce said she had to contact maintenance employees at Latitude and ask for their help at the other properties.

“I would just call [Latitude] and be like, ‘hey, we really need somebody’ and [they] would send somebody,” Pearce said. “But they were busy too, because Latitude only had, I think, two or three maintenance people for those two huge buildings.”

Eventually, Pearce said, Student Quarters hired a maintenance employee for the five Next Chapter Properties buildings.

“They were lowballing the pay for maintenance people, like $15 to $18 an hour for a full-time maintenance person, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Pearce said. “Because for those people, especially if they’re HVAC certified, it’s like $50 an hour to hire those kinds of people.”

Pearce said one person was not enough to address all of the requests, and residents would furiously call her every day. Even though she had only been working for one year and had a newborn baby at home, Pearce quit.

“I left because I was crying every single day … you get a call from a parent that’s just screaming at you at eight o’clock in the morning, right when you get to work. And that’s the beginning of the day, and it doesn’t stop. That’s just the whole day.”

She said their office contacted Student Quarters headquarters in Atlanta about the lack of maintenance staff and asked for help, but it never got the employees it needed.

“It was really hard to get a call back or it would be like, ‘oh, this above your head. You don’t need to worry about that,’” she said. 

A review complaining about the property management’s communication. Screenshot taken Dec. 2023.

Ruthie Delaney used to be the General Leasing Manager for Next Chapter Properties until she was fired for a maintenance problem that wasn’t fixed in a timely manner. She said it cost the leasing company a lot of money.

“There was a big maintenance issue where something needed to be checked or corrected by a certain date,” Delaney said. “I had spoken with our maintenance manager. We were short-staffed at the time. He said, [they would complete it] when we get the staff. I pushed the date to when we could get the staff, but then it never really got completed. So ultimately, the responsibility fell on me as the property manager.”

Delaney said she had spoken with Student Quarters about hiring more maintenance staff prior to her termination.

“Next Chapter was used to not having any maintenance in-house, and then all of a sudden, we had one [employee] and they weren’t able to keep up with the work orders and everything. And so we had to constantly try to say, ‘hey, no, we need more than that…’ [Our maintenance worker] was getting very frustrated that he was a one-man show, when we consistently asked for more help for him,” she said. 

She also said she was barely given notice before her termination.

“I was given a final warning out of nowhere without [being given] any first warning,” Delaney said. “It was my first and final warning… Two weeks after my final warning, I saw that my position was posted on Indeed, without them telling me at all.”

Another employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash, worked as an assistant leasing manager before they quit last year. They said Student Quarters didn’t do its due diligence in hiring Delaney’s replacement, and that she had to fulfill the general manager’s responsibilities without any training and without a wage increase.

“If you’re going to fire a general manager, you should probably have had someone to fill that role, you know, not two months later – sooner than that,” the former employee said.

CU-CitizenAccess interviewed three employees and was informed of three more who have quit within the past two years.

“The staff completely changed from when I started to when I left,” Delaney said.

Why does the heat keep going out?

Hunt had worked in student leasing in Champaign-Urbana for 24 years. In the short time he worked for Latitude, he said he was overwhelmed by the amount of large-scale issues he encountered. 

Before he accepted the general manager position at Latitude, Hunt was warned that Latitude was having issues with its HVAC system. He was hired to help determine solutions to the heat and air conditioning going out in units for long periods of time. 

But Hunt said even though he and the maintenance staff he oversaw tried to fix the problem, they never found a solution.

“I say it just goes back to poor design by the engineers who designed all of this. That HVAC system probably never should have been put in that type of application. But it was there.”

The company that installed the HVAC system is based in Missouri, Hunt said. So, if the heat or AC would go out, it would take the company over a week to travel to Champaign to fix the problem if maintenance couldn’t find a solution.

“Because of the type of system that we had, we had to use this specific vendor who [was] licensed to work on those units to provide that service,” Hunt said. 

Randy Smith, the building safety supervisor for the Champaign Building Safety Division, said the company has two employees who inspect HVAC systems during construction. 

Smith said the property owner decides which system to install and that the Building Safety Division cannot mandate whether a certain system is used or not. 

Once the division proves the HVAC system works and construction is finalized, any future malfunctions get inspected by the Neighborhood Services Department. 

City inspects individual units only when it receives a complaint

Tim Spear, the code compliance manager for the Champaign Neighborhood Services Department, said the city only inspects individual units when a resident files a complaint. 

“We get involved when there’s a tenant complaint about a property, we don’t do any proactive inspections on individual units,” Spear said.

Tenants can file complaints through a tenant inspection form on the Neighborhood Services Department website

Otherwise, the city only checks rental properties once every five years, and it only inspects the common areas like hallways, elevators, stairwells and lobbies. 

When it inspects a property and finds something wrong, Spear said the department usually hears back from the owner. However, there are times when the city has to intervene. 

“We would follow up with a letter saying, you know, either you plead these issues, or we’re going to have to send this to the legal department for further options at that point,” Spear said.

50% of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students live in off-campus housing or commute in 2023 according to data provided by the university.

70 students have opened housing cases through the use of the Student Legal Services Department according to its 2023 annual report

Emily Vock, a staff attorney with Student Legal Services, said students typically don’t know how to effectively complain.

“The vast majority of [students] did not know [submitting a complaint to the city] was an option until we talked about it,” Vock said. 

Once Student Legal Services tells students to submit a complaint with the city, Vock said their maintenance issues are usually solved. 

But she said it shouldn’t have to get to that point, and that submitting a maintenance request should result in a timely solution. But she said students oftentimes get taken advantage of. 

“I think for the vast majority of students, this is their first lease that they are signing for a lot of them, this is one of the first just major contracts that they’re signing … And that can be really overwhelming,” Vock said.

The university used to have a Tenant Union portal called Housing Explorer to help students submit complaints about their housing and get responses from their landlords. All complaints and responses were made visible to the public through a database on the site.

However, the University quietly removed the site because as CU-CitizenAccess previously reported, it violated its own advertising policy, put landlords on the defensive and inhibited the university’s mission to improve its relationships with them.

Vock said students are now taking to social media to share information about their landlords and primarily using Reddit

How out-of-town ownership may play a role

Student Quarters has two out-of-town headquarters: one in Atlanta, Georgia and one in Washington, D.C. It has properties on 22 college campuses all over the country. That’s enough property for over 11,000 beds.

Next Chapter Properties is based in Champaign and Glenview, Illinois and has over 15 properties total: enough for 3,759 beds. 

Many former employees said it was difficult to communicate with Student Quarters and Next Chapter Properties. Both entities did not respond to multiple requests for comment by CU-CitizenAccess.

“I met ownership people maybe once or twice, but they didn’t see the state that these places were in and they don’t care,” former assistant leasing manager Pearce said. “You know, they build them and then they’re like, that’s it …  It was really hard to get a call back or it would be like, ‘Oh, this above your head. You don’t need to worry about that.’”

Code Compliance Manager Spear said there are many properties in town with out-of-town ownership. He said there can be challenges communicating with them.

“If the owner lives in town, it’s a lot easier for somebody that lives here to be like, ‘Hey, come here and see what’s going on.’ They can see that firsthand without having to do a Zoom call or a FaceTime … they can actually be here and see, oh, this is what’s wrong. And see the people that are affected by it.”

While Spear couldn’t comment on specific leasing companies, he said that the city often has a difficult time communicating with offices that are understaffed.

“That’s where we run into problems …  is in those situations when we can’t find anybody locally,” he said. 

Vock said communicating with out-of-town leasing offices results in more lawsuits than local offices.

“There is usually local management who will take our phone calls, but they are not necessarily the person in charge of making decisions,” Vock said. “And so that can box us into a corner, where we have fewer options and lawsuits become more likely.”

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