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BYUI student tenants told to leave after apartment owners seek to create condos

Rexburg

REXBURG — Tenants at a Rexburg student apartment complex were surprised in late March to learn that the owners of their building wanted them to prepare to move out in April, at the close of the current semester.

Brigham’s Mill is an approved student housing complex for single men at Brigham Young University-Idaho. If the Rexburg City Council approves a request from the owners to change the plat at a meeting this Wednesday, the complex will, potentially, no longer house single students, and each unit will be available for sale as a condominium.

According to those who live there, more than 50 tenants have contracts that won’t end for a few more months, and some of them don’t want to move before their contracts are up.

Guillermo Lemus and Ammon Taylor have each lived at the complex for about three years, and intended to stay a while longer. Both have contracts until September. They and the other tenants with spring/summer contracts were notified by email and in an informal meeting with property managers on March 22 that the building’s owners were expecting them to prepare to find new housing and be out by April 8 — the day after the end of BYU-Idaho’s winter semester.

“It is with regret that we are sending out, at the request of the ownership of Brigham’s Mill, the following notification of the possibility of Brigham’s Mill not providing housing for the Spring 2022 Semester,” reads the March 22 email from Colleen Gibson, owner of Connextion Property Management, the company that manages the rental agreements.

This notice followed:

“The owners of Brigham’s Mill are currently exploring options to convert the property into community housing. However, this is contingent on receiving approval from the city of Rexburg on April 6th AND receiving sufficient qualified buyers over the next ~2.5 weeks. You are receiving this notice because you have a contract with Brigham’s Mill for the Spring Semester commencing on April 15th. If you wish to cancel your contract now in order to secure housing elsewhere, you may do so by canceling your contract and paying the $100 cancellation fee specified in the contract. Otherwise, if we (the owners) decide to move forward with selling Brigham’s Mill as individual condos, we will notify you no later than April 8th and pay a full refund of all monies paid including the cancellation fee within 15 days as per the BYU-I Student Landlord Housing Contract.”

The units at Brigham’s Mill can’t be sold as condos until and unless the Rexburg City Council approves the plat change at their upcoming meeting Wednesday.

According to Rexburg Planning and Zoning Administrator Alan Parkinson, right now, the building is platted as one large dormitory apartment complex. In order to sell the individual units, the property must be replatted as individual condominiums.

The project was recommended for approval by the Rexburg Planning and Zoning Commission at their March 17 meeting, but approval will ultimately be up to the City Council. Parkinson says the city considers things like parking, building codes, and whether the project fits within the city’s development plans, but that the city has nothing to do with private contract issues between owners and tenants.

Brighams Mill

At the time of publication, the tenants had still not been given any formal, printed eviction notices, but a follow-up email sent by Gibson, also on March 22, cited a section of the BYU-Idaho Approved Housing Guidebook to support the actions being taken.

That section of the guidebook titled “Voluntary Withdrawal by Landlord from the Approved Market” states that, “Landlords wishing to remove their property from the BYU-Idaho approved housing market may do so by submitting the intention in writing. A plan must be included assuring that all students will be properly notified of the change with sufficient time to secure a contract elsewhere and vacate the premises.”

The guidebook does not clearly spell out what is appropriate in this situation, when the owner of an approved housing complex intends to remove the complex from the approved housing network while tenants still have signed contracts. Most single BYU-Idaho students are required to live in approved housing, which the complex would no longer be if the project moves forward.

University representatives declined requests to discuss the situation and clarify the policies.

The guidebook does require landlords to “work in good faith” with tenants to resolve any contract disputes, and to participate in formal mediation facilitated by the university if disputes can’t be resolved.

Attorney Brian Ertz from the Intermountain Fair Housing Council says the owners can sell the property, but the buyers will inherit the contracts.

“If they intend to breach, they’re going to be liable for any of the consequent damages,” Ertz says. “The cost of moving, the costs of finding a new place, the difference in rent for the duration of the contracts, and any other damages that a tenant can demonstrate. You can’t just unilaterally opt out of a contract without there being a contractual basis to do so. There are landlord/tenancy laws which a landlord or property management has to adhere to in order to compel a tenant to leave … The students have rights under state and federal law and the management company and the owners need to respect their rights.”

BYU-Idaho’s Approved Housing Guidebook states that landlords may not “unlawfully or unjustly evict students, or harass or retaliate against students for their exercise of rights under the BYU-Idaho Student Landlord Housing Contract, University standards, or Idaho law.”

Lemus and Taylor believe the owners of Brigham’s Mill didn’t expect pushback from the tenants.

“They’re trying to push this as soon as possible,” Lemus says. “They think that we are just college students and we will just roll over.”

Tenant Samuel Bird says the timing couldn’t be worse.

“I’m pretty unhappy,” he says. “It’s finals week for us, so we’re already stressed. … On top of that, we’re finding out that we don’t have a place to live.”

Multiple attempts to obtain comment from Connextion Property Management and the owner of Brigham’s Mill, Greg Nelson, were unsuccessful.

According to Lemus and Taylor, BYU-Idaho Housing and Student Living has offered to mediate between the two groups, but at press time, mediation had not been scheduled. Lemus says he has been told that because of a backlog, the mediation wouldn’t be scheduled for at least a week or two, which would be past the time they’ve been asked to move out.

Lemus says that some of his fellow tenants are okay with simply finding a new place to live, but he estimates 20-30 are willing to enter the mediation process instead. At press time, there were still 4,086 “empty beds” for male BYU-Idaho students for the upcoming spring semester, among all approved housing complexes, according to BYU-Idaho’s housing website.

Lemus, Taylor and Bird are hopeful that their willingness to know and assert their rights as tenants will prevent other students from having the same problem in the future, as rumors swirl that the owners of other complexes are preparing to do the same thing.

At the March 17 meeting, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairperson Sally Smith expressed concern that approving the new plats for Brigham’s Mill would open the door for other apartment complex owners to do the same thing, reminding the commission that the buildings were originally approved as student housing.

Others in attendance at the meeting, including Parkinson and Commission Attorney Spencer Rammell asserted that it was not the city’s responsibility to control or maintain student housing.

According to the meeting minutes, “Staff and the commission need to look at this request and determine if it meets the development code and if it is a good place within the city for this type of use.”

Commissioners Vince Haley and Aaron Richards each acknowledged the shortage of family housing in Rexburg, suggesting the plat change could help alleviate that shortage.

The Rexburg City Council will consider the plat change for approval at their Wednesday meeting at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 35 N First East, Rexburg. The meeting is open to the public and can be streamed here, but the council does not take public comment on agenda items.

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