Villagio recognizes residents’ accusations, begins negotiations between lawyers
The Office of the Attorney for Students is negotiating with lawyers for Villagio Apartments to resolve multiple resident claims of unfair leasing practices that have occurred within the last year.
Milena Christopher, attorney for students, sent a 12-page letter April 7 to Mike Cohen, attorney for Villagio, detailing accusations made by 12 students. The letter makes four primary requests, the most important being students are not to be held responsible for water charges under an addendum they were required to sign, which was not included in the original lease.
“We demand that you cease and desist on all water charges to any students who were coerced into signing the addendum or who refused to sign the addendum, and are being charged wrongfully,” the letter states. “This includes a reimbursement of all water charges and late fees as appropriate. Students should not be charged for any water ‘overages’ unless they signed the addendum at the time of the original lease.”
Christopher said she was contacted by attorneys for Villagio soon after a March 11 University Star article publicized a situation she has called a pattern of abuse at the apartment complex.
“They are concerned, and they want to resolve these issues,” Christopher said.
Cohen agreed, but said Villagio owners had no previous knowledge of the specific complaints until receiving Christopher’s letter. Cohen said he forwarded the letter to the owners and has not had a chance to review the requests himself.
“The owners are going over (the letter) now,” Cohen said. “They are not on site and had no idea any of this was going on, and of course, the article is injuring their business and they are very upset about it. They are going over the complaints and they are going to take care of them.”
The students allege they have been forced to sign agreements requiring them to pay for water, a provision not included in the original lease. Students also allege they are being held responsible for damages caused by previous tenants and have been turned over to collection agencies for amounts ranging in the hundreds of dollars.
“They were not coerced,” Cohen said. “If you say ‘you need to sign this lease amendment before you move into my apartment,’ then (the resident) has a choice: They can say ‘no’ and find somewhere else, or ‘yes’ and sign the amendment.”
Anton Hoffman, owner of Villagio, said the facts are on their side and prove the students are “exaggerating, lying or just outright trying to cheat.” He said Christopher’s office had not provided him with sufficient information before the April 7 letter to address the situation before it got out of hand.
“It is a bad situation,” Hoffman said. “We were never given any complainant’s names before last Tuesday so that we could check into the facts and take care of the problem. Since we have learned of these allegations, we have asked repeatedly to get this information. We want to deal with it, we are part of the community, we run a business and it is a very nice property.”
Complicating the issue is a volatile relationship between complainants and Property Manager Danny Gonzales, with both parties accusing the other of unprofessional and irate behavior. Christopher’s letter requests an apology for the way residents have been treated and asks that Gonzales “be relieved of his duties at the Villagio.”
Cohen responded by saying Gonzales is no longer dealing directly with tenants. The duty has fallen to Amanda LeJuene, assistant property manager.
“Whoever is over there should be treating people with respect and nicely,” Cohen said. “That is not a legal issue, but that being said, the owners want the tenants treated with respect.”
Cohen said there are two sides to every story.
“We have to talk to those people and Danny and find out on a case-by-case basis exactly what happened,” he said.
Two resident situations have been resolved since Christopher’s initial contact in January. Erin Artzner, communication studies senior, who was facing eviction over a conflict concerning a transfer lease with Villagio, has now signed the lease and said she was pleased with the treatment she received from LeJeune.
Justin Vaughn, health management senior, never lived at Villagio, but was turned over to a collections agency for $6,400 for a lease agreement he initially signed in June 2008, before changing his mind and moving somewhere else. He maintains management personnel, who have since been fired, released him from the contract that summer. LeJuene said a lack of proper documentation resulted in the misunderstanding that led to his referral to collections, who sent Vaughn a letter March 12 officially absolving him of the entire amount.
“It is nice to be in the free and clear, but I do not think it should have been an issue to begin with,” Vaughn said. “I am definitely relieved and wished it had never happened.”
Christopher said she spoke with Williams and Fudge Collection Agency, who handles all collections for Villagio, and they have agreed to halt collection attempts until the situation is resolved.
Christopher is waiting to hear from Cohen and said she hopes the requests laid out in the letter are met. She could not be specific, but said there were options to pursue if Villagio is uncooperative.
LeJeune said she believes progress has already been made on some of the issues.
“I think we are all optimistic here and we are happy that the residents are getting their concerns handled,” LeJeune said.