Cottages delays result in lawsuit
by Kellen Short
The suit, filed by Capua Law Firm on behalf of several tenants, alleges that Capstone Properties and CCC-Boone failed to provide habitable rental units as required by law.
The complaint says that Jonathan Schneider, an undergraduate student at Appalachian State University, entered into a lease agreement April 30 to pay $575 per month the fee and August rent.
In addition to not delivering the rented units, the company charged an administrative fee that was not permitted under North Carolina law, the complaint claims, and that collection constituted an unlawful debt collection activity.
The lawsuit alleges "unfair, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous, deceptive and injurious" trade practices on the part of the cottages, including deliberately overcharging plaintiffs.
The suit asks for rent abatement, return of the administrative fee, $4,000 each for unfair debt collection practices, other damages and attorney fees.
The complaint was filed Aug. 16 on behalf of Schneider and amended Friday to include plaintiffs Deanna Reary and Langdon Clay. If accepted as a class-action suit, the pool of plaintiffs could grow to include hundreds of people.
"While the exact number of class members is unknown to plaintiffs at this time, it is easily ascertainable through appropriate discovery," the suit says.
The plaintiffs and attorney Paul Capua could not be reached by presstime Friday.
Meanwhile, students with book bags intermingle with workers in hard hats at the community off Poplar Grove Road South.
The Watauga County Planning and Inspections office has so far issued certificates of occupancy covering 534 of the 894 bedrooms, Director Joe Furman said Friday.
"They've got about 60 percent of their bedrooms built and occupied, and everything else is under construction," he said, adding that inspectors are continually signing off on earlier stages of work.
Jen Wilson, vice president of marketing and leasing for Capstone Collegiate Communities, did not respond to an email this week seeking a telephone interview, but she answered questions via email Friday.
Wilson said 23 buildings are in various stages of construction, and 60 displaced tenants were staying in local hotels as of Friday.
"Thirty-four of these residents will likely be able to occupy their units by the end of September," she said. "Twenty-six residents will be in hotels for a longer term but were given the option to cancel their lease and secure alternative housing."
Wilson said she expects that the units for those final 26 will be completed in mid- to late-November.
"We will have unoccupied buildings that are estimated to be completed in December," she said.
Furman said the crews are working constantly, so much so that someone complained about the nighttime noise a few months ago. Sheriff's deputies informed workers about the county noise ordinance, which prohibits unreasonably loud disturbances, especially between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.
Furman said he guessed contractors were working "at least double shifts, if not around the clock."
"Usually September and October are really good weather months, so they ought to be able to make some good progress," Furman said.
While tenants are inconvenienced by the delays, local hoteliers and those in the tourism industry are seeing a silver lining in the holdups.
Jerry Lamonds, general manager of Comfort Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites, said his hotels are among those hosting displaced cottages residents. He said Comfort Inn and Fairfield Inn originally filled 25 rooms each with displaced students, generally with two to a room.
Another 18 rooms were occupied for about a week, he said.
Now the numbers are down to about nine rooms at each hotel, and those will be vacated at the end of the month, he said.
"For us, it's been great, because September slows down a little bit, so it gave us that weekday business that we probably wouldn't have had originally," he said.
As vice chairman of the Boone Tourism Development Authority, Lamonds is also acutely aware of the increased occupancy tax his hotels will be paying.
He estimated the two hotels would be about 15 percent higher than usual in occupancy tax payments for the month of September. That 6 percent tax collected on short-term rentals is used to promote travel and tourism and fund tourism-related expenses.
Wright Tilley, executive director of the Watauga County TDA, said he wouldn't likely know until a month or 45 days later how much extra revenue was collected due to the cottages tenants filling hotels.
"Typically in the fall, with football games and with leaf season, weekends are strong anyway," Tilley said. "So, what we'll see is just a more consistent level of occupancy, probably, during the weeks because of the students that are inhabiting X number of hotel rooms on each property."
What's not clear is whether the unusual number of rented rooms will create a pinch for tourists seeking to visit the area this fall.
Local hotels are often booked solid for the third weekend in October, when the Woolly Worm Festival, Valle Country Fair and leaf season are under way, Tilley said. ASU homecoming weekend, set for Oct. 11-12 this year, is also a strong weekend.
"I've had some phone calls from some higher-end restaurateurs that are concerned about the visitors having access to enough hotel rooms, and really that's been the only segment of the tourism market that has expressed a concern so far," Tilley said.
Tilley said the result might be an increase in stays at local bed-and-breakfasts or cabin rental properties, although those are typically already strong for leaf season, too.
Lamonds said his hotels were unable to offer any space to cottages tenants during October weekends - they've been booked since summer.
"We told them we'd be more than happy to keep them, but they'd have to move out every weekend," he said.
While the inconveniences to tenants have apparently been great enough to spark a lawsuit, Lamonds said it might surprise some how common it is to see apartment complexes delayed.
He said this was at least the fourth time in his 15 years with the hotels that they have hosted displaced students.
"I've housed students for the whole entire first semester before," he said. "One time it happened, I had almost 40 rooms, and it went on like, into November and December. It happens."