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Off-campus students allege poor living conditions, unfair leases with popular rental company

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Illustrated by Esther Tang

By Amy Qin     4/16/19 11:56pm

A housing company renting to over 100 Rice students has been the target of student complaints about unfair leases, repeated maintenance issues and lack of professionalism dating back to 2017.

Owl House Properties manages a total of 21 properties, including four on Bolsover Street, all in locations within short biking distance to Rice, according to its website. It currently rents almost exclusively to Rice students, according to Ben Bahorich (Will Rice ‘10), who collectively owns the rental properties with his brothers Mark (Will Rice ‘09) and Eric. 

The Bahoriches have owned properties in the area for about 11 years, but the company Owl House Properties was formed in the last few months to cohesively manage the rental properties, according to Ben Bahorich.



CONCERNS WITH LEASE

The lease used by Owl House Properties to sign tenants has drawn criticism for clauses some consider to be overly harsh. Geoffrey Riddle, a resident associate at Lovett College who works off campus as a lawyer, said a student asked him to informally look over a lease for a property owned by Owl House Properties. He said the lease was “not necessarily illegal, just very unfair.”

Ben Bahorich said he and his brothers have been using the lease for 10 years and have not had any problems with it. 

However, he said that they are open to changing clauses in the lease that clients find issue with and said that they would potentially switch to using Texas’ standard lease next year.

“We’re not rigid,” Ben Bahorich said. “We’re a family company, we’re Rice grads. We’re not trying to set something down from on high.”

Riddle said one of the clauses he found particularly concerning was a clause that stipulated that the landlord could decide what constituted beyond “normal wear and tear” when deciding to  make deductions from the tenants’ security deposit. 

According to Riddle, the standard of what  constitues “wear and tear” is normally defined by Texas case law.

Ben Bahorich said that “generally a tenant will know” when damage to the house exceeds normal wear and tear.

“If there’s little nicks on the wall we don’t care about that,” Ben Bahorich said. “A fist through the wall or a knee through the wall aren’t normal wear and tear, [but] generally the expenses are not too bad.”

Colin Losey (Martel ‘18) said he rented 1702 Bolsover from Mark Bahorich from May 2016 to May 2017. According to Losey, he and each of his housemates had about $600 of their $1000 deposits deducted for what he said was “routine maintenance.”

“The Bahoriches deducted money for things like ‘dusting,’” Losey said.

Ronnie Reynolds, the property manager of Owl House Properties, said that last year the company introduced a process involving a form listing the conditions of the property upon move in, which would be used to compare to the conditions upon move out.

“If the deposit got deducted, we list in detail what’s the cause,” Reynolds said. “We’ve never gotten complaints about [having the deposit deducted].”

Losey said he and his housemates repeatedly asked in 2017 to see the forms documenting the condition of the house that they had filled out upon moving in, but Mark Bahorich refused their requests.

Another clause Riddle said he found concerning was the inclusion of a “non-delivery of possession clause,” which stipulates that if a property is not available upon the commencement of the lease term due to renovation or other issues, the Bahoriches would have 30 days to deliver the property to the tenants before the tenants have the right to terminate their lease.

Because Owl House Properties currently has several properties under renovation, according to Ben Bahorich, he said he “guesses [the clause] could” come into play when the lease dates for those properties come around but that it is very unlikely. He said that he would be open to changing this clause in the future.

Although tenants can feasibly avoid trouble under the lease, Riddle said he would still advise against signing onto it.

“I just think that the mentality that this lease reflects is off-putting to me, and I would discourage anybody who is my client from doing business with someone who offers them a lease of that nature.”

Alessi Armengol, an off campus representative at Lovett College, said Owl House Properties asked her on April 10 to promote their properties in her college. Having read their lease and heard stories from people who had rented from them, she refused and told them she would reconsider if they redrafted their lease to be “ethical.”

“It is frustrating to see a company take advantage of young college students who are likely renting a place for the first time and who don’t understand what a good lease looks like,” Armengol, a Lovett College junior, said.

MAINTENANCE AND PEST ISSUES

The primary complaint among the tenants who spoke to the Rice Thresher, several of whom are still leasing from Owl House Properties and thus were granted anonymity, was the landlords’ failure to address maintenance requests.

Ariana Engles, a Lovett junior, said she moved into the attic unit of 1719 Bolsover Street, which is managed by Ben Bahorich, in the summer of 2018 as a subleaser before her lease started in the fall. She said that in addition to multiple broken appliances, the walls of her room would become “sticky, dripping wet” when the air-conditioning was turned too low, which eventually led to mold growth on the walls. 

Engles said after she noticed that she was getting sicker more often, she emailed Reynolds about the issue. Reynolds then told her to put bleach on the mold.

“I ended up having to get steroid shots to treat how sick I was getting,” Engles said. “I was getting full body hives.”

Engles, who had been serving as Student Association president at the time, said the repeated maintenance issues consistently caused her to miss meetings. She moved out from 1719 Bolsover in December of 2018 and said she got her full deposit back.

“A good landlord actually takes care of you,” Engles said. “My landlords at my house now, because they heard I was sensitive to mold, had replaced all of their ventilation systems so that there was no mold in the house.”

Ben Bahorich said he apologizes to students for any maintenance issues and has since introduced a process of having three different contractors to call at any time. Monthly air filter changes have also recently been implemented at 1719 and 1721 Bolsover, according to Bahorich.

“There’s been growing pains with us, being a relatively new company,” Bahorich said. “We didn’t major in leasing or property management. I think there’s been a learning curve. Because we’ve scaled up quickly recently, I think there’s probably been some things that have taken longer than they should, and so that’s why I apologize up front.”

Engles said she counted “over 10 times” when handymen came without tenants being notified, including replacing a roof during fall semester without prior warning.

“[Contractors] just started working one day and woke everyone up at six in the morning,” Engles said. “My unit was at level with a lot of the roof, and [once] when I was changing clothes, I saw that one of the workers was staring at me.”

An anonymous source, who said they have been renting from the Bahoriches since August 2017, said that a rat lived in their unit for three months and that Ben Bahorich failed to address the issue in a timely manner.

“We all left for winter break with Ben saying that the exterminators would take care of it,” the source said. “When I came back before any of my roommates, I found that the rat had had free range of our home for three weeks. It took me calling him at 10 p.m. one night crying when I had heard the rat to promise to send exterminators to patch up any holes.”

Bahorich said the tenants notified him on a Friday and that he immediately scheduled pest control to come the following Monday. 

Clair Hopper said she has been renting 1702 Bolsover, which is owned by Mark and Lauren Bahorich, since spring of last year. She said the month-long process of coordinating the repairs of broken appliances with Reynolds was “one of the most stressful and antagonistic interactions I have ever had.”

Hopper said Reynolds would consistently confuse the dates of contractor appointments and tell her the appliances were fixed when they were still broken.

“She kept saying weird things, like telling us that the upstairs dishwasher was fixed, even though we only have a downstairs dishwasher,” Hopper, a Martel College senior, said. “After struggling with it for weeks, the contractor finally arrived. Ronnie had sent him to three different apartments on Bolsover, thinking that they were ours. Not only that, but all the dishwashers in all of those apartments were broken, so he fixed all of them.”

Hopper recounted a separate incident in which one of her roommates noticed the smell of gas by their dryers and contacted Reynolds about a potential gas leak, after which Reynolds made an appointment with a contractor. When one of the housemates returned home, the contractor had arrived earlier than anticipated and was in the process of dismantling the stove.

“He said that Ronnie told him to check it for a gas leak,” Hopper said. “He was adamant that Ronnie only told him to check the stove. He kindly agreed to check the dryer, and there was indeed a gas leak there. Ronnie’s miscommunication could have caused a lot of direct harm if Kaarthika hadn’t caught it.”

Another anonymous source said the company’s lack of professionalism was troubling to them. They said the account to which they paid their security deposit was called “Li’l Sebastian Memorial Fund, LLC,” a reference to an episode of the popular TV show Parks and Recreation. They also said Reynold’s casualness in emails made them uncomfortable.

“It’s hard to feel confident that our money is landing in safe hands when she uses words like ‘pleazzzz’ and winking emoticons in her emails,” the source said.

In what Ben Bahorich called a “classic example of growing pains” earlier this year, Owl House Properties bought a property previously owned by a different landlord. Reynolds leased the property to a different party for the next year without notifying the current tenants, although they had an email agreement to extend their lease, according to Ella Feldman, one of the current tenants. Feldman, a Baker College sophomore, discovered that her unit was being leased out to another party through an offhand conversation with a friend of one of the newly signed tenants.

Ben Bahorich said the miscommunication was the company’s fault. In order to remedy the issue, Reynolds said she made arrangements for the current tenants to sign a lease for a neighboring property at a reduced rate.

“Legally, what we would’ve had to have done is to send them notice now, and they would’ve had to move out by their move out date anyway,” Ben Bahorich said. “It wasn’t a legal thing for us. We just wanted to call them and say, how do we make it to where you’re happy with the situation?”

Feldman said that although at first she was grateful for their efforts to remedy the situation, she later discovered an old listing of the neighboring property that was already priced at the “reduced rate” Reynolds had offered.

“In reality, there was no reduced rent, it was just a cheaper rent than the place we’re living in now, because it’s not as nice of a place,” Feldman said. “That was really frustrating to uncover, because yet again, it seems like they lied to us.”

Feldman said she appreciated their apologies, but that “frankly, they should not be in this business” with their current level of disorganization.

“As they put it, they’re a young organization, they’re young people, they’re still figuring it out, but the people that they are catering to are even younger [and] even more vulnerable,” Feldman said.

Engles said that despite issues with their landlords, there is a close community of off-campus Rice students on Bolsover Street.

“We’re really tight knit, and honestly Ben and Ronnie have given us a lot of reason to band together,” Engles said. “For some of us, this is like our second college.”

Disclaimer: Ella Feldman is the Features Editor of the Thresher. 



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