After heat fails in apartment complex, Dartmouth students report a cold shoulder for weeks

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-13-2023 9:34 AM

LEBANON — Communication issues and inadequate preparedness were among the criticisms leveled by Dartmouth College students at the Summit on Juniper apartment complex in Lebanon, where a number of tenants were without working heat for multiple weeks, including during the frigid weekend of Feb. 3 and 4.

A heating failure in an apartment building at Summit on Juniper, a 300-unit residential complex on Mount Support Road that primarily houses Dartmouth College students, affected 56 apartments and 156 total bedrooms during January and early February.

According to Michaels Student Living, which owns and operates Summit on Juniper, the cause of the heating issue was faulty heat compressors, which management is currently working to replace for all four buildings, including those where heating issues were not reported.

“We first learned of isolated heating issues with some heating units in late November (and) early December, and steps were taken to fix the issues at that time,” Michaels Senior Vice President of Operations Cheree Lujan said in a written statement to the Valley News. “In early January, we received reports that the issue was broader in nature.”

While some outages were restored in less than two weeks, many tenants, most of whom are graduate or medical school students, were without heat for a month or longer.

“I am at the point where I am requesting that my rent be canceled or my lease be terminated,” graduate student Sanjana Krishnam said in an email to the Graduate Student Council on Jan. 21. “Just covering utility charges does not compensate for the many sleepless nights, the deterioration of my health and the emotional stress that I have had to endure.”

Tenants began airing their grievances on social media platforms or in emails to student organizations, including the Graduate Student Council and Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth, or GOLD, a union of graduate student employees. Residents alleged that Michaels management was frequently slow to respond to complaints or inquiries, did not communicate effectively with tenants and lacked an adequate emergency plan to keep students safe.

Tenants told the Valley News that their requests for maintenance, which they submitted online to a Summit portal, were “canceled” the next day, according to an email they received, which provided no reason for canceling the work order.

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“I had assumed it was because the heat had been fixed,” said Antonio Mello, a doctoral student from Brazil, who lives in a four-bedroom apartment at Summit. “So I sent them an email asking them to explain why. But they didn’t answer.”

Mello said he only learned the extent of his heating problem when he called the management office located at the complex.

An office representative told Mello that his heat would not be fixed for 10 days. When Mello asked about acquiring a few space heaters, the office representative said they had “run out” and would have to acquire more.

When Mello asked about other options, he said the representative, who had offered no suggestions, said, “Do what you got to do.”

“I think that comment in particular was rude,” Mello said. “You don’t say that to your client or to your tenant. She was not friendly, for sure. And the rest of the conversation was not friendly.”

Tenants said that Michaels’ only contingency plan was to provide space heaters to affected residents, but management did not appear to have a sufficient supply.

Smitakshi Goswami, a 24-year-old graduate student from India, said that many tenants, including Goswami, were given only one space heater per apartment, even if the units had two or more bedrooms.

“My roommate and I would take turns with the space heater in our rooms, but it was a mess,” Goswami told the Valley News. “The living room was always cold, and in the morning the entire apartment would be cold, except in the room with the space heater.”

Goswami said she requested a second heater when her roommate became sick with a cold, but management did not give her another until Feb. 3, several days later, when temperatures were falling throughout the day into the negative digits.

Some of the heaters were old or in poor condition and posed additional safety concerns, according to some tenants.

Krishnam, who was without heat for more than a month, said the first space heater she received had no temperature control. A second heater, given to her as a replacement, would cause the circuit breaker to trip and shut off all the electrical outlets in the apartment.

According to Lujan, Michaels management “provided residents with three to five space heaters per unit in the interim.”

But Goswami, who lost her heat in the first week of January, said that management did not begin offering additional heaters until weeks later, when tenants began publishing their complaints online and eliciting the involvement of the Graduate Student Council and GOLD.

“I think if GOLD was not here in the picture, (the management) would have just been reckless with (the situation),” Goswami said. “Because only after we would make a complaint to GOLD, only then would they take action.”

Goswami said that in early January communication from management would be minimal and vague in details and that emails sent to management would not be answered.

When Goswami began sending complaints to GOLD representatives, Goswami said, Summit management would message her “minutes” after Goswami contacted GOLD.

Rendi Rogers, a lead organizer of GOLD, said the union became involved around the second week in January when it began receiving emails from tenants seeking help.

“What was most shocking to us on our end was how much these people were being ignored,” Rogers told the Valley News. “Dartmouth administrators would just tell them to call management. And the management was telling people that they were fixing things. But nothing ever really got done.”

The Michaels Organization, a national company based in New Jersey that develops, builds and operates residential properties, constructed Summit on an 18-acre parcel owned by Dartmouth College. Michaels leases the property from the college, though Michaels officials declined to discuss financial details with the Valley News.

While Dartmouth does not own Summit on Juniper, Rogers believes that Dartmouth should have intervened on the students’ behalf.

“Dartmouth heavily advertised this apartment complex to incoming graduate students last year (and) would host tours for prospective students,” Rogers said. “So a lot of students agree that Dartmouth should take some responsibility.”

Diana Lawrence of the Dartmouth College Office of Communications said Dartmouth staff have expressed their concerns to Michaels management.

“We have shared our concerns with Michaels about the faulty heating issue and are aware of the discomfort it has created for the students who reside at the Summit,” Lawrence told the Valley News in an email. “We are working closely with Michaels daily to ensure they are addressing the issue and will continue to monitor their response.”

In January, GOLD teamed with the Graduate Student Council to organize a community drive to gather and distribute donated space heaters to Summit tenants, Rogers said. The group also organized on-call volunteers to provide tenants with a warm place to sleep or transportation during the first weekend of February, when temperatures fell to a low of minus-19 degrees.

Rogers did not know the number of heaters distributed but said the campaign drew wide participation from students and faculty members.

“It was inspiring to see people mobilize for the cause,” Rogers said, “but also disappointing that we had to do that in the first place.”

Rogers noted that shortly after organizers began posting flyers about the space heater drive, Michaels notified Summit tenants in an email that they could request more than one space heater per unit.

On Jan. 24, Michaels representatives, Regional Property Manager Morgan Stokes and Regional Vice President Michael Reighter met with members of the Graduate Student Council to discuss tenant grievances.

Following that meeting, tenants were told they would be credited for any rent paid in January when they did not have heat.

As of Wednesday, heat in 32 of the affected units had been restored. Lujan said the remaining 24 apartments were expected to have their heat working again “by the end of the week.”

Patrick Adrian can be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

 CORRECTION: Summit on Juniper is a 300-unit residential complex on Mount Support Road that primarily houses Dartmouth College students. A previous version of this story and captions included an incorrect name for the complex.

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