When Chris Scavone ’11 opened the door of his newly-renovated off-campus apartment at 162 Park St. this summer, something was terribly wrong. As he entered the aging brick building, he was struck by a strange odor, a smell that housemate Chris Labosky ’10 would later describe as “steaming piss.” Set of keys in hand, Scavone began to explore the house and soon discovered he was unable to unlock the door to the first-floor apartment. He assumed there had just been a mistake; after all, he and his friends had leased the entire building.
Suddenly, Scavone heard yelling from inside.
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Scavone, Labosky and housemates Alex Harris ’10, Matthew Bogdan ’11, James Wyper ’11 and Peter Vizcarrondo ’11 soon discovered the cause of the trouble: they had a squatter.
The occupant of the first floor of their home was an elderly man who, under the protection of the government’s Section 8 Rental Voucher Program — which provides assistance to low-income, elderly and disabled persons — could not be evicted. And now, more than four months later, their unwanted tenant has still not left due to legal complications arising from his old age.
Having an unknown octogenarian on the first floor of one’s home is a completely different situation from living above classmates or writing tutors, which is the case in the residential colleges. The residents of 162 Park have never seen their mysterious housemate, except for Scavone, who claims to have seen him scowl through the blinds once while barbecuing in the backyard this summer. (Scavone said the old man looked like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino.”)
“No one goes in, and no one comes out,” Wyper said. “We’re not really sure how he gets his food.”
The old man’s presence is felt, and heard, even beyond the ubiquitous “piss smell.” He shouts at his neighbors periodically and listens to conservative talk radio — ironic, Bogdan said, because he is living off public housing benefits.
“It’s unnerving to know he’s down there,” Harris said. “He could come up and murder us all.”
Because the old man has refused to leave, two housemates have been relocated to an apartment down the street indefinitely, and the rent has been lowered accordingly. When the issue came to a head, Harris and company did not think to call Yale for reinforcements; instead, they threatened the property management company with a lawsuit.
Once students move off campus, they retain their residential college affiliation, their relationships and their connection to Yale as a whole. But when the ceiling begins to drip or the heating starts to falter, off-campus Yalies begin to understand what it means to live independently. Now, they have to deal with maintenance and upkeep instead of awkward bathroom encounters and creaky bunks. Away from college comforts, they have to trust in their landlords’ generosity or prepare for a protracted legal nightmare. Once they leave Yale’s stewardship, ready or not, students have to grow up.
Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said Yale provides off-campus students with next to no legal assistance in dealing with housing issues.
“I would assume that students who enter into an off-campus living arrangement are bound by a contract, and it would seem that if there is a dispute between the landlord and the tenant or vice versa, then it could be taken up in court,” he said.
Laura Gottesdiener ’10 has lived off campus since her junior year, and said she “loves” the added independence and the thousands of dollars she saves each year. Recently, however, Gottesdiener and her roommates have run into some serious problems with their house, problems to which she said their landlord has paid little attention. Laura’s roommate sent the following letter to their landlord last weekend to detail these issues:
I’m writing because last night our bathroom ceiling caved in and fell all over our bathroom. There was a lot of water leaking that smells bad and is brown. We don’t know where it’s coming from. Also because our toilet is filled with ceiling, we are unable to use it. We are concerned about the leak, and we would really like to be able to use our bathroom…
P.S. Alex told us that we might be evicted because the fire marshall [sic] came last night? Please let us know if we should find alternative housing for the next few days.
The issue, Gottesdiener said, stems from leaky old pipes in the ceiling that dripped so much that she would often wake up drenched. She and her roommates told their landlord about the leaks, and the company responded quickly. But the landlord’s solution was not to fix the pipes; instead, he placed a pan beneath the leaks to collect the water before it dripped through the ceiling. It worked without a hitch until the pan overflowed and became too heavy a load for the ceiling to bear. Gottesdiener was walking to the bathroom when the ceiling collapsed, sending forth a cascade of sewage accompanied by the stopgap pan — a deluge that missed her by mere moments.
“Now we’re joking a lot about how if anybody had been sitting on the toilet, they probably would have died,” Gottesdiener said.
But jokes aside, Gottesdiener and her roommates have been entirely on their own in handling these issues — they didn’t even think to ask for Yale’s help.
In fact, the administration seems to be more involved in the regulation of students’ behavior rather than that of the landlords’, Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs, Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said. His office occasionally deals with complaints from non-student residents regarding noise or trash relating to late-night parties. In these instances, his office and others in the administration communicate with the students involved, but he has not yet had to deal with disputes between landlords and students.
This independence in dealing with housing problems, Gottesdiener said, has been frustrating in the past. Often, complaints about broken windows or missing locks have gone ignored for months.
Still, complete independence is something that off-campus students should welcome, Gottesdiener said, even with the irritation it can bring.
“I don’t think that it’s because landlords in New Haven are bad,” Gottesdiener said. “Yale kids are just used to having things done for them all the time. It’s a little jolt of what it’s like to live in the real world without much money. It’s the same way as if I go to the dining halls and there’s something wrong, they’ll help me. But if I get a shitty sandwich at ABP, that’s my problem.”
The face behind many names
Off-campus students can no longer rely on Yale’s support system to help to change a lightbulb or fix a broken faucet, so they must look elsewhere for solving their routine housing difficulties.
Carol Smith is the leasing agent for Pike International, a property management company that owns more than 200 units around the Yale campus. The name “Pike” may not ring any bells, but that’s probably because the group has undergone several name changes in its 12-year history. Ever heard of Saturn Rentals? Preperty LLC? Different names for the same thing.
But it isn’t sketchy, Smith promises; the company officially changed names this past summer when the corporation underwent a package refinancing and decided to re-launch as “Pike International.”
“Preperty was just too hard to say on the phone,” Smith explained. “People would always think we were saying ‘property.’ ”
Smith began working for Preperty in February 2008 when she moved to New Haven from New York City, giving up a job at Christie’s auction house to mitigate the four hour commute to work each day. Her husband, Jason Smith GRD ’10, is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Yale.
“I had to choose between a dream job and a dream man — I chose the dream man,” she said, smiling.
But Smith’s move to New Haven was more of a homecoming than a new phase in her life. Her father was a voice major in the Yale School of Music in the 1970s and she grew up in the Elm City. Her familiarity with the area helps her to be an effective landlord, she said, because she can help to direct newcomers to the city to the right areas for them.
“If an engineering student from out of state calls asking for housing on Howe Street, I’ll tell him about options that are closer to the engineering school,” she said. “For students, proximity is important.”
But Smith is only one layer of the Pike bureaucracy. The property management company is owned by Rabbi Shumlly Hecht, who, along with a group of students that included Newark Mayor Cory Booker, founded the Chai Society, now called Eliezer — an elite semi-secret Jewish society. Hecht could not be reached for comment after repeated e-mails.
Working under Hecht are Evan Schmidt, who is in charge of rent collection, Eli Hecht, Shmully’s brother and the company’s property manager, and Smith. Eli deals with maintenance issues and complaints along with a team of about seven workers who help with day-to-day problems, but Smith, who is responsible for all leasing of properties, comes most often into contact with Pike’s student tenants.
Nine students interviewed said they have found Smith to be a helpful, caring landlord willing to accommodate many difficult situations. Jay Lundeen ’11 moved into the Fence Club (formerly the fraternity Psi U) house on Crown Street this year and works with Smith whenever issues arise. At one point, he said, one of his housemates was unable to make rent for two months, and the group accrued a debt of around $1,400. Smith made little fuss, Lundeen said, charging the housemates only a small fee, and relations between Pike and the tenants continued amicably.
Beyond typical off-campus problems with plumbing and fixtures, Lundeen characterizes his off-campus experience, including his relationship with his landlords, as a positive one.
“I’m really liking it,” Lundeen said. “But you realize that if you have problems, you’re gonna have to deal with them on your own.”
Smith too said operations generally run smoothly with tenants, insisting that she has never had any serious problems. She attempts to cultivate “mini relationships” with those who live in her units.
“See that guy there?” she said, waving at a man crossing Park Street across from Jojo’s Coffee and Tea. “He’s a grad student. He lived in one of my buildings last year.”
Smith insisted that she has never heard of any problems of corruption or of major issues between landlords and their tenants, but the influence of the Yale administration has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is government safeguards that prevent things from going awry, Smith said, adding that Pike is constantly regulated by tax forms, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies. On one occasion, Smith recalled, some Environmental Protection Agency inspectors randomly dropped by the Pike office on Howe Street demanded to see 25 forms about lead-free paint. Luckily, Smith said, she had the forms ready and on-hand.
Notwithstanding her large number of student tenants, Smith said she would never consider contacting the Yale administration in dealing with tenant issues, although she said she has encountered few situations that would demand it.
“My tenants are good people,” she said.
‘Keep it professional’
Competing property management company Off Broadway Inc. is also a family business, owned and operated by the Ornato family and headed by David “DJ” Ornato.
Leasing to students can be complicated, Ornato said, because tenants accustomed to living under the watchful eyes of Mommy, Daddy and now Papa Levin have developed very high expectations for their apartments. But Ornato, who rents to undergraduates, graduate students and professionals alike, said expectations have little effect on how he deals with problems in his buildings — problems ranging from clogged drains to broken light bulbs, dysfunctional heaters to parking passes.
Ornato did say Yale students, especially undergraduates, do tend to have more questions than other tenants, simply by virtue of their inexperience with apartment living. First time renters often do not know, for example, that you have to make sure you turn the gas on for heat. Ornato said he attempts to make the transition to apartment living as painless as possible, and noted that there is a definite learning curve as students become more acclimatized to independence.
“I give them a full instruction sheet ahead of time and go over it with them,” Ornato said. “I review what the gas company number is, what the cable company number is. Ninety percent of people remember and 10 percent people forget — but it’s their first time renting, so what do you expect?”
And Ornato, for one, is happy to help students to turn on the gas or change a light bulb — he calls his tenants “admirable.”
Still, unlike Smith, Ornato does not seek to cultivate a personal relationship with his tenants beyond what is required in his role as landlord, although he said he usually gets to know his potential tenants at least on a basic level in order to determine whether they are qualified residents.
“Let’s keep it professional, if you don’t mind,” he said.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Brendan McCook ’10 lived in the Elmhurst last year but moved to the Taft Apartments on College Street this fall. He said he prefers the landlords at the Taft because they are very friendly and approachable. From their office situated right in the Taft’s lobby, they greet their tenants with a smile and are always willing to help, McCook said.
Three students interviewed who live in the Yale-dominated Cambridge Arms on High Street said they have a good relationship with the building’s landlord, Kristie Tafael. Jonathan Gordon ’10, who lived in the Oxford on College Street last year, said that Tafael is quick to respond to maintenance requests made by tenants. But, like a residential college dean, she is also quick to notify students who are partying too loudly.
Unlike a dean or master, of course, these landlords and property managers are not affiliated with the University. And most students interviewed repeated Gottesdiener’s assertion that they would be unlikely to contact Yale were they to have a problem with their living situation.
“I probably wouldn’t talk to the Yale administration because it’s a private lease, so Yale doesn’t really have any jurisdiction over it,” Gordon said. “I’d probably talk to my landlord first. If something egregious were to happen, I guess I would have to look at the terms of the lease I had signed.”
But others said they would contact an administrator, noting that residential college affiliations help students stay connected to campus.
“I feel like all the resources of Yale are still available to me if I’m off campus,” Schepps’s housemate, Lauren Pippin ’11 said. “I’d probably talk to my dean. He’s really cool.”
Staying connected, staying alive
Just because they can no longer trek through basement tunnels to get to the dining hall each day, students who live off campus are still a part of the Yale community. Lundeen said that he’s actually become more involved with Calhoun College after moving out; he now makes a concerted effort to eat in the dining hall several times a week and currently serves as one of Calhoun’s buttery managers. Harris is a Master’s Aide and said he hangs out with other members of the Branford class of 2010, and Gottesdiener rows for the women’s crew team and writes for campus publications. Still, she said, she doesn’t eat in the dining halls often anymore and has lost touch with the more casual friends she met in her college entryways in years past.
But while off-campus students feel less superficially connected to the campus’s blond wood and vaulted ceilings, Gottesdiener said, they still play a significant role in campus affairs.
“There’s a big subculture of people who live off campus,” Gottesdiener said. “They’re not any less a part of Yale.”
Ben Lasman ’10 has lived off campus for two years, and in this time has served as editor-in-chief of both “Volume” and “The New Journal.” He said that because students opt to live off campus, they are not generally involved in activities that require being on the campus itself.
“The people who move off campus move off campus for a reason,” Lasman said. “The people they choose and the activities they choose aren’t necessarily tied to on-campus culture.”
Residential college deans and masters said off-campus students still play a visible role in college life.
“They are and will always be Piersonites, and both Master [Harvey] G[oldblatt] and I encourage [off-campus students] to come to Pierson and be directly involved in our community,” Pierson Dean Amerigo Fabbri GRD ’04 said. “Even if they only stop by for candies in both the Master’s and Dean’s offices, we are extremely happy when that happens.”
Fabbri did acknowledge that Pierson is located very close to several off-campus housing options just across Park Street, making participation in the college community easy even if students no longer live within the college’s red brick walls. But Saybrook Master Paul Hudak said off-campus students often come to Sunday’s “Family Night” dinner in the dining hall and Berkeley Master Marvin Chun additionally said that Berkleyites remain active in college life, even when living off-campus.
Even though students living off-campus can still stop by their Master’s offices for the occasional jolly rancher and dose of TLC, when it comes to housing disputes, Yalies have to figure it out and face the situation without the Yale support network. They’re all on their own — but that might not be a bad thing.
“I brought these issues upon myself,” Gottesdiener said. “But I can handle them by myself too.”