Schembri Property Management rendered approximately 500 students homeless Sept. 1 when they sent out an email informing the renters of the new student-housing complex at 1 Columbia St. that the property would not be ready for the scheduled move-in on Thursday.
“You can see why everyone was scrambling,” said second-year student Tom Zhu, who signed a lease agreement with Schembri earlier this year.
“The first day, the Monday, I started calling them and they wouldn’t pick up. They hung up on me three or four times,” Zhu said. “When I finally managed to talk to someone I was asking them about the timelines, about when they expected to be finished … they said ‘we’re the management office, we’re not responsible for construction.
“Everyone who tried to call got hung up on, and I’ve heard of some people who showed up at the office being kicked out by police,” Zhu said.
The email sent out on Monday offered three solutions to the hundreds of students who have signed on with Schembri. According to Zhu, “they are providing alternative solutions; one being arranging a couple of hotels for us to stay at for the time being, another one for us to stay with a friend until they’re done construction, and the third one would be to transfer your lease to another Schembri property.”
“What’s going on with the hotel is; if you sign on for the hotel you’re not going to get your first month’s rent back, so it’s basically like you’re paying for the hotel … some of the hotels are 40-50 minutes away [from UW],” Zhu said. “If you don’t call them, they don’t tell you where you’re supposed to be living [and] they won’t provide any exact details unless you sign on.”
“I’m talking to a lot of other people who opted out of all the Schembri options and just want out of their lease,” Zhu said. “We called asking them if we can cancel it … they said we can’t … when I asked for legal information they declined to tell me unless I told them who I was.”
The original lease signed by the majority of the students does not include any information on what is meant to happen should a delay arise. Students who signed on in the past two months signed a different lease, which includes a clause stating; should there be a delay in construction, Schembri will provide alternative solutions.
On Tuesday morning, Zhu created a Facebook group for students who had been left homeless by Schembri. “I made the group not because I wanted to bad-mouth Schembri; I wanted people to know what other people were doing because, back then, there was no news from Schembri; no one knew what to do.”
“Tuesday night I received a call from [Schembri] telling me to take down my Facebook page. [Schembri] was basically saying, ‘the stuff you’re saying on there’s not true’,” he said.
On Thursday, the UW Off-Campus Housing office held an open forum for students affected by the Schembri construction delay. “We had a lawyer from Waterloo Community Legal Services come in and she went through the steps that they can take, legal guidance, … and just explaining the laws a little bit and the residential tenancies act,” said Off-Campus Housing staff member Olivia Choi.
“I think it was really good for students to be able to hear it from a legal perspective,” said Stephane Hamade, Feds’ VP of Education.
Off-campus housing has made all the information discussed at Thursday’s forum available on their website.
According to Choi, “Students have been getting daily emails from Schembri, but still no timeline on when it will be completed … construction workers have been saying one to two months or well into the fall, and Schembri representatives have been saying the end of September, so we’re unclear on when construction will be completed.”
For Zhu, the timeline is unacceptable. “I’m pursuing legal action, and, from what I’ve heard from the lawyer and what I’ve read from the lease, there’s nothing that pertains to whether or not they have the authority to not allow us to cancel if it’s delayed,” he said. “[They] can’t expect us to fulfill our contract when [they] don’t have a place for us.”
Feds has also become involved in the situation.
“They … met up with somebody from Schembri to address the student concerns … they were asking what tenants are able to do and they gave them the same answers they were sending out in emails: they’re unable to cancel the lease, it was an unforseen circumstance, and they are providing temporary housing alternatives for the students,” Choi said.
“We spoke with Gordon Schembri … about what had happened and what they were doing. We also talked to Schembri about students being able to no longer have leases with them after what had happened, and as he’s been telling a lot of students, they aren’t interested in that course of action,” Hamade said. “I think he is doing what he believes he is allowed to do … often times with legal issues it’s not black and white.”
Hamade added: “We did talk a little bit about making sure that students understood [their options] and got enough detail … [the situation] is really unfortunate.”
“It’s not something you expect to deal with,” Zhu said. “Now I’ve got money tied in somewhere else, [and] I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get that money back [from Schembri].
When asked for a statement, Schembri staff referred <em>Imprint</em> to their previous press release and declined any further comment.