Tensions persist between Univapts tenants, landlord | Durham County | Indy Week

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Tensions persist between Univapts tenants, landlord

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Granite countertops aren't cheap: University Apartments residents met with their new landlord last week and learned that rents will increase—as much as 25 percent for new tenants. The price hike will cover major renovations, including a "lifestyle center," swimming pool and granite countertops, designed to attract Duke University students to the 71-year-old complex in southwest-central Durham. (See related story, "True grit," June 3.)

Capstone development, an Alabama-based company specializing in student housing, purchased University Apartments for more than $3 million from University Associates in late May. However, Capstone and University Associates bungled the handoff, as residents weren't notified of the pending sale, of Capstone's intent to market the 14-building complex to Duke University students or of the extensive renovations that will require them to move, at least temporarily, to other units—until after the deal was sealed.

Capstone has offered tenants the option of renewing leases for one year with an increase of $25 per bedroom—if they sign by July 1. In addition, there is a $15-per-bedroom charge for heat during the winter. Heat was free under agreements with the previous owners.

Rents currently range from $565 to $650, and the affordability has long appealed to the working class, artists and nonstudents. Rates for new tenants range from $665 to $820, although Capstone noted, "Rates beyond July 2010 can't be forecast at this time."

Already strained, relations between residents and Capstone further soured when the company, in a letter (PDF, 1.6 MB) dated May 26 (three days before the sale), told tenants "... to successfully renovate the community, we will not be able to sign new or renewal leases beyond those already signed."

Within a week, Capstone reversed itself, offering existing residents a deal. "Our goal is not to lose any residents," Capstone executive vice president Karen Wigley told tenants at last week's meeting.

Many residents are concerned that a swimming pool and other high-end amenities will turn the community into a student playground. And, as expected, the cost of the extras has raised the rent, often beyond what people living on the margins can pay.

"I don't need a swimming pool. I don't need granite countertops," resident Jessica Janecki said. "I need a cheap apartment. I can't afford this."

Construction is expected to take two months per building; Buildings B and M are slated for renovation. Those residents will be relocated to vacant units in other buildings. Wigley said Capstone would provide professional moving services and pay for utility-transfer fees.

University Apartments needs significant repairs in plumbing, wiring and roofing. And some renovations, including energy-efficient appliances, could be an improvement. However, many residents are already dismayed by the new, white vinyl-framed, albeit doubled-paned windows, which are replacing the vintage, metal-framed ones. (Endangered Durham's Gary Kueber chimes in on his blog, calling the "junktacular new windows" a harbinger of the "plastification of University Apartments.")

"We need to agree on the definition of charm," resident Sara Messner told Wigley.

"We won't agree," Wigley replied.

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