ORONO, Maine — Chelsea Brady is among more than a dozen University of Maine students who have contacted a Student Government legal adviser after experiencing a series of problems as tenants of The Grove, a new apartment complex off Park Street.
“We’ve had mold in our apartment. I’ve been sick from it and also my cat,” she said, adding that the asthma of one of her roommates has worsened since moving into The Grove.
Brady also said the complex is noisy, which makes it hard to study, and that it takes multiple requests to get maintenance to make needed repairs.
“In the past month, I’ve either called or emailed them over 30 times,” the second-year psychology major from Pembroke said.
Since it opened in September, the Orono apartment complex has been plagued with plumbing problems and faulty appliances, according to residents interviewed by the Bangor Daily News, town officials and reports from The Maine Campus, the student newspaper at UMaine.
Owned by North Carolina-based Campus Crest Communities Inc., the Orono complex also has been the site of raucous parties, including one that drew more than 300 in September. The Grove has had problems with heating and electricity and mold that some tenants say is causing health problems. Last month, Grove tenants were plunged in and out of darkness for a week because the pumps that provide the complex’s heat overtaxed its electrical system.
The roughly $25.3 million complex has a 620-tenant capacity. Residents pay an average monthly rent of $525 per person, which includes a $30 electricity allowance.
Tenants say they are responsible for electricity use beyond that, which has been a problem in recent months because the apartments are heated with heat pumps that have electricity as a backup power source.
As of this week, 15 to 20 tenants of the new Orono apartment complex who attend classes at the University of Maine have sought legal assistance on problems ranging from mold and higher than expected overage fees for electricity to substandard construction and staff entering apartments without providing the “reasonable notice” required by state law, according to Sean O’Mara, undergraduate student legal aid attorney.
“I would say most, if not all, do not want to continue their leases,” said O’Mara, who recently brought the Bangor law firm Pelletier & Faircloth into the effort to get the student tenants’ complaints resolved.
“I can say that the number of people trying to get out of their leases with the Grove [has been] much higher than what I’ve seen for Orchard Trails,” another Orono apartment complex largely populated by college students.
O’Mara said Tuesday that his office — which provides free legal advice and reduced-rate court representation for undergraduates taking at least six credit hours — has no active complaints regarding Orchard Trails Apartments.
O’Mara said, however, that the number of tenants considering legal relief likely is higher as some may be working through other law firms or with Pine Tree Legal Services, which provides free legal help to Mainers with low incomes through several offices, including one in Bangor.
Pine Tree Legal has an extensive section on tenants’ rights on its website. It was not immediately clear Tuesday if the organization’s Bangor office had been in contact with any Grove tenants.
UMaine student Karlie Michaud of East Millinocket and her mother are among those who have been trying to resolve their problems with The Grove through other means, including contacting members of their state legislative delegation and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is from their hometown and likely a distant relative. After repeated attempts to work with the Orono property’s management staff, they said, they’ve also taken their complaints to corporate officials.
“I moved out a few weeks into the [fall semester] and I haven’t been able to get them to cooperate with me in trying to get out of my lease,” Michaud said of the Orono complex’s management staff.
“If I’m not bugging them, they’re not doing anything about it. I’ve called several times and phone calls aren’t returned. I have tried corporate, I have contacted a lot of people trying [to get them] to help me and they’re really unresponsive,” she said. “I don’t really know what the next step needs to be, but at this point it needs to be resolved somehow.”
Michaud said hers was among nearly half a dozen units in which mold was detected last fall. Health concerns prompted her to move elsewhere in early October, she said. By that point, she already had paid her first and last month’s rent, as well as her rent for October.
“They said [in November] that they were going to give me money if I signed some paperwork,” Michaud said, adding that her parents also had to sign it because they were guarantors. “They told me maybe I’d get two months’ rent back,” which would amount to more than $1,000. “That’s a lot of money for a college student and their parents.”
Michaud said that when she and her parents tried to schedule a time for signing in early December their calls went unreturned.
“They weren’t responsive when I tried to contact them to sign the paperwork so I could get my money,” she said. “My parents tried to contact them and they said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. We’ll have your money by the end of the day,’ and then nothing.”
A spokesman for Grove parent owner Campus Crest Communities Inc. said Tuesday that the company is working to address tenants’ complaints.
“As mentioned previously, we are actively working to address any outstanding issues at the property,” spokesman Jason Chudoba said Tuesday when asked for comment on reports that some tenants are considering legal action.
“As with the recent power outages, we can’t always control the situation, but we can control how we respond to ensure a satisfactory resolution,” he said. “As our residents experience issues or have questions, they reach out to us and we work with them accordingly. Our focus remains on providing our residents with an exceptional living experience.”
A complaint O’Mara said was “almost universal” among the students he is working with is the level of overage fees The Grove has been charging students who use more than their $30 allotment for electricity in a given month.
In addition, O’Mara said, The Grove is requiring tenants seeking to terminate their leases “for reason,” or for legally justified reasons, to find replacement tenants to sublet their rooms, which conflicts with a recently enacted state law.
The law, which took effect in September 2011, states that either the landlord or the tenant can choose to end a lease if the other party has “materially breached” the agreement, according to Pine Tree Legal. In order to do so, the party that wants to terminate the lease must provide a written “served-in-hand” notice or, after three good-faith attempts, a notice sent by first class mail, with a copy left at the other party’s home.
Pine Tree Legal notes, however, that once signed, a lease sets out the rules that renters and landlords agree to follow. “If something in a lease is grossly unfair to you, a judge may say that it can’t be used against you. But usually your rights depend on what the lease says.”
“We’re looking at potential civil options for these students right now. I’m not precluding anything in particular,” O’Mara said. He said that he also is exploring potential violations of Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, the state’s basic consumer protection law.
The Unfair Trade Practices Act prohibits businesses from using unfair or deceptive practices and can be enforced by the attorney general or by consumers who actually have lost money because of an unfair trade practice, according to the state attorney general’s website found at www.maine.gov.
A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said that as of Monday afternoon, no official complaints had been filed against The Grove.
“We have received two related inquiries from consumers but no formal complaints nor any that have required mediation to date,” special assistant Kaylene Waindle said.
Brady said Tuesday that she has not yet decided if she will take her landlord to court. She said both of her roommates also want out.
“I’m waiting to hear more from the lawyer,” Brady said. “I would be happy to get out of the lease. They’re [The Grove’s management] saying there’s no reason to let me out of it.”
Brady said she posted an item on Craigslist seeking a sublessee but has had no luck. “I even offered to pay their move-in fee,” she said.
“I’m going to school and working and I don’t have time to deal with things that could have been prevented,” she said.