By RICKY W. LINDSAY, Sports Editor
Most students and faculty at the University of Michigan-Dearborn were able to escape the blistering cold temperatures and wind chills affecting southeastern Michigan when the campus closed Monday and Tuesday last week.
However, that wasn’t the case for residents at The Union at Dearborn.
Around 8 p.m. on January 6, a pipe froze and subsequently burst at The Union, UM-Dearborn’s privately-owned campus housing complex.
“We believe, to the best of our understanding, that one of the louvers on one of the cold air vents was not fully closed so that a heat coil froze. When it froze, a line popped and that’s where the water came from,” Larry Winokur, managing partner at Urban Campus Communities and attorney at Dickinson-Wright, a law firm based out of Troy, said on January 10. “The protocol is to turn off the water. What happens is that that shuts down the boilers, so as a result, we lost heat.
“We had to get the heat started again after we had the issue isolated, so it took a while for the heat to get back on through the complex. That’s what I think was the most disappointing part of it. It took so long to get the heat back on.”
According to Steve Ostipow, leasing and marketing manager at The Union, heat was restored to residents by the next morning. He also said damages from the pipe burst were limited and only affected a few people.
“We look to provide a great living experience for our residents,” Ostipow said January 13.
Along with heat-loss, residents said they dealt with communication issues with The Union, a lack of amenities at a free pizza gathering hosted by The Union January 7, and mold.
The Union, which opened this past September, is owned and developed by Urban Campus Communities. The complex is managed by Asset Campus Housing, a Houston, Texas based company.
The incident wasn’t a system failure, rather a procedural one, according to Winokur.
“When you have a new project like this, you have seasonal adjustments that you do where you prepare for winter and in the spring you prepare for the summer,” he said. You have a protocol and this was apparently missed as we prepared for winter.”
According to Winokur, “Everything is being done” to prevent a reoccurrence, including rechecking the fall protocol completed for the winter. He doesn’t have any cost estimates for damages, but said he expects them in the “next couple weeks.”
“Anybody who is in the rental business wants their tenants to be happy and content to their surroundings,” Winokur said. In this situation, which was replicated all over the Detroit metropolitan area because of the frigid temperatures, the first thing you do is correct the damage. Then you do everything in within your power to insure it will never happen again and you do the best you can. But when you natural conditions like this, it’s something that happened throughout the metropolitan area.”
The University of Michigan-Dearborn became aware of the incident after a mother of a Union resident emailed Catherine Davy, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, according to Stanley E. Henderson, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management and Student Life. He said he was told by the owner and developer of The Union, UCC, that the pipe bursting was a result of the extremely cold temperatures in the region.
“We talked with the owner probably around 10 or so yesterday (Tuesday) morning and he told us that there had been a water pipe that broke because of the cold — it certainly was cold that night — and that it had been taken care of,” Henderson said January 8. “We asked, because the mother had indicated the heat was out as well, at that point, the owner did not indicate that there was anyone without heat.”
Although The Union is privately owned and is not University property, Henderson said the university reached out, making themselves available for assistance.
“We reached out to say if there was anything we could do to be of assistance, we would be more than willing to offer that assistance,” Henderson said. “And then [director of University Center Operations] Kris Day, communicating with [university relations of The Union] Steve Ostipow, made the same offer.
“We were thinking if it was necessary, we would’ve opened one of our buildings yesterday during the closure if students needed some place to come. They (The Union) indicated that that was not necessary, that they thought the situation was handled at that point.”
Henderson said on January 8 that the university would be speaking to the property’s owner for a debrief.
Because The Union is privately owned, Henderson iterated that the university can’t do much regarding the incident. But that doesn’t mean he’s not concerned about the overall experience students are receiving.
“Obviously as a tenant, I have interest in what’s happening in the Victor’s Den space, but as Vice Chancellor for students, I also have an interest in the experience students are having, and I want to be clear in terms of ensuring that students understand that.”
With no where to turn, residents sought The Union’s Facebook page for answers regarding the incident.
At 11:11 a.m. on January 7, The Union responded to complaints that residents like Andrew Shalawylo had posted on its Facebook page regarding heat and water loss.
“Any reported lost heat and water has been restored,” The Union’s post read. “If you are experiencing heating issues today, please contact the office immediately so we can resolve the issue. Thanks!”
During the afternoon of January 7, posts like Shalawylo’s were suddenly deleted from The Union’s Facebook page.
“It bothers me that the staff of the Union seem to be more concerned with protecting their image than with making sure their residents are taken care of,” Shalawylo said.
Like Shalawylo, resident Sarah Keeler’s post was deleted hours after the incident originally occurred. She responded with a new post around 7:40 p.m. on January 7.
“It’s really interesting to find that whoever manages this facebook page deleted all resident complaints and concerns regarding the heating debacle at the Union last night, including mine,” Keeler’s new post on The Union’s page read.
Keeler was upset when asked about how The Union handled the incident, including the deletion of her original post.
“I think it’s clear that they’re more concerned about profit than they are about residents, which is why they’re deleting resident complaints and concerns on the facebook page,” she said. “They’re more concerned with maintaining positive PR with possible tenants than keeping the ones they already have happy.”
Shalawylo said hours after the incident that he lives in a separate building from the one affected by the burst pipe, but nonetheless dealt with repercussions.
“They shut off our water without any notice and haven’t updated us on how long we will be without water or what exactly the problem is,” he said. “The staff had no idea of the problem or control of the situation when it happened and have not given anyone any information since.”
“It happened just after we got done making dinner and we were getting ready to watch the championship game when the fire alarm for the building went off and we had to evacuate,” said Matthew Myers, a UM-Dearborn student and resident of The Union. “Luckily they actually had us stay inside instead of making us go outside when there was frost condensing on the inside of the building. We waited around for about 15 to 20 (minutes) and then we were told that we could go back to our rooms, after which the alarms kept going off for a while longer.”
Likewise, Courtney Ford, a student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and resident of The Union, experienced repercussions from the incident.
“My roommate called and told them everything, not me,” Ford said Tuesday afternoon. “But our heat is barely working, so it’s really, really cold right now, and we have very low water pressure, and it’s cold water. I couldn’t even go to work today because my car was blocked in by the snow plows in the parking lot and we have no water.”
Ford said her roommate called The Union around 10:15 Tuesday morning about the problems they’ve experienced since the incident. Although hot water was restored to the room at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Ford.
“No one has been up here since to check our heat,” Ford said. “As far as the water all they said [is that] it will take awhile for the warm water to kick in.”
With the heat loss at The Union, Winokur said space heaters were made available to residents.
Later Tuesday evening, Ford tweeted out a picture of a space heater provided by The Union.
“Just got this baby dropped off at my door. They’re doing something right! #TheUnion@UMDRBNProblems,” her tweet read at 7:39 p.m Tuesday.
“Someone from the office came by and said she was giving me complimentary space heaters for my roommates and I,” Ford said.
UM-Dearborn students and Union residents Myers, Bradley Pischea, James Cammuso, and Xochitil Shieh said they received a complimentary space heater.
However, according to Ford, not everyone in The Union received a space heater like she did.
“My friend told me that she didn’t get one, and she asked the lady if she couldn’t have one yet because they were only for residents who complained about the heat, but she could have one if there were extra.”
Myers and Shieh said they both experienced a loss of power while using their heater.
In response to the pipe incident and its repercussions, The Union offered its residents free pizza and pop in the Victor’s Den, a space leased by University of Michigan-Dearborn. The gathering was set to start at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night, according to its Facebook page and emails sent out to residents.
When UM-Dearborn student and The Union resident Rachel Tyrer arrived at the gathering before it started, amenities offered by the housing complex were no longer available.
“When I arrived around 7:48 [p.m.], there was no more pizza, only maybe 10-15 boxes of pizza,” Tyrer said Tuesday night. “So only the workers and people already there were able to get pizza. And there was only two cases of 24 cans of pop for everyone.”
“I went down at 7:45 (p.m.) and it was all gone,” Shalawylo added.
Tyrer was not happy with the way The Union handled the incidents dealt to residents over the past two days.
“It’s honestly the most idiotic decision to replace something that is terrible,” she said. “A lot of us are out of heat, and we had no water until about noon today (Tuesday). They should be working harder on getting people fresher water and actual heat instead of this pizza.”
During their stay at The Union, Shalawylo, Myers, Pischea, Tyrer, and Teslim Agboola said they’ve dealt with mold.
Myers and Pischea said they started experiencing the mold soon after they moved in, while Shalawylo didn’t experience mold until mid-November after switching rooms.
“A large number of us have mold growing on our windowsills constantly that they refuse to address,” Shalawylo said.
“I’ve had mold for too long to count,” Agboola added. “But it did get worse (during the incident) in our living room, though.”
According to Winokur, the mold is a result of a “condensation issue with humidity.” He added they are currently working on it as well as looking into it.
When asked about the mold residents have experienced, Henderson was concerned.
“If I were the student who had that particular bedroom or was in that particular apartment, I would absolutely insist that that mold be remediated before I went back into the room. I cannot imagine that Asset Campus Housing, which has 60,000 beds under management, that they would not feel that way as well,” Henderson said. “The message to students who are seeing this, you need to get yourself down to the office and be insistent that that get taken care of. And I cannot imagine that that’s not going to be taken care of by the management company. It’s a health issue. It is something that a landlord has a responsibility to take care of.
“There was a thing on Dateline (NBC) just these last couple of days about mold in public housing in New York City and it’s a serious kind of issue and there is a responsibility on the part of a landlord to take care of that. I think it’s very regrettable that that’s there and students would be incredibly remissed themselves if they didn’t really make an issue about getting that taken care of. They need to make sure that that is being taken care of because there’s a responsibility for the landlord to take care of it.”
When asked how The Union has reflected on the University of Michigan-Dearborn with this incident, Henderson said that the past semester as a whole shows a positive experience.
“I think the idea of a pipe breaking, even though you have 10 degrees below with the wind chill and all the kinds of things we’re dealing with, that’s still a negative, there’s no way around it,” he said. “Does it have impact on reputation of the university? I think the overall experience that students have is what would reflect on the university. To this point, I think the Union has reflected extremely positively on the university.”
Although this incident occurred, high hopes for success coming from The Union remain with Henderson.
“But I believe very passionately that housing is something that is of great importance to the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It’s essential that the private partner that we have gets that housing right for the experience. I’m not at a point of saying, well, this incident as serious as it might appeared to be, this doesn’t mean that housing has failed and going forward, it’s going to be a detriment to the university. I still believe that it will continue to be a strong addition to the experience of the students and it’s also going to help campus in many, many respects down the road.”
Henderson said the university has had extensive experience with UCC for quite some time. When the university was previous looking to provide its students with campus housing, UCC was involved. He does not believe that construction was a factor in the incident.
“I think that this developer (UCC) has I think it’s somewhere around 30, major projects that they’ve been involved with over the years. They don’t continue to have those major projects without being reputable and without having quality construction,” Henderson said. “It’s not logical that a group like Urban Campus Communities would have gotten to where they are without being reputable and building reputable kind of things. Any apartment building that is built by a private developer, whether it’s The Union or Midtown or any other apartment complex, is it the kind of apartment complex, is it the kind of construction that the University of Michigan would do? The University of Michigan builds buildings to last for 150 years. But your home construction is not made to last for 150 years. And we’re talking about industry standards that are what’s the kind of housing that is industry standard.
“That’s what we have here and that’s all of the apartment complexes that I know anything about have. I really strongly feel that that’s not really an issue here.”
Last January, Henderson said “The quality of both the building and the service students will receive will reflect UCC’s own brand of Michigan Excellence,” in a Michigan Journal article.
Winokur agrees that the way the incident at The Union was handled displays that Michigan excellence.
“I think the response reflects everything that you would expect,” Winokur said. Everything was immediately attended to and fixed as fast as possible.”