Aspen Heights utility bills raise questions about buildings' structure

Monday, February 3, 2014 | 8:32 p.m. CST; updated 3:55 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Construction on the Aspen Heights housing complex is shown Feb. 18, 2013. The development opened behind schedule and has since faced multiple allegations of poor construction and lack of safety for residents.

COLUMBIA — Triple-digit utility bills have been added to the growing list of complaints from residents of the Aspen Heights student housing community since it opened in August.

And there may be factors besides cold weather driving the bills sky-high.

List of complaints

Parents of Aspen Heights residents met in St. Louis Saturday to air complaints about the student housing complex and discuss how to take action. Among their concerns:

  • High utility bills
  • Upstairs too hot, while downstairs freezing
  • Bedroom keys that open every similar bedroom in the complex
  • Interiors of homes unpainted
  • Reserved parking spaces promised in lease but never received
  • Campus shuttle buses often too full to accommodate everyone
  • Residents feel unsafe

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At a meeting of parents of Aspen Heights residents Saturday in St. Louis, Roy Gross, whose daughter lives at Aspen Heights, said the electrical portion of her bill from Dec. 11 to Jan. 15 totaled $409.38.

"I know people who own greenhouses that don't consume that kind of electricity running grow lights all night," Gross said.

For 18 of those 36 days, there was no one in the apartment, and the heat was turned off. His daughter's roommate turned it off before leaving for break, Gross said.

On Jan. 24, Aspen Heights announced a "utility cap," ensuring that utility bills will be limited to $75 from December through February. It is an effort to address the high fees "resulting from extreme cold temperatures throughout the Midwest and the United States," Aspen Heights general manager Tyler Yates said in an email to tenants.

In an email sent Thursday, Yates informed tenants that some units may need "additional weatherproofing, while heating systems in other units may need adjusting or replacing."

Connie Kacprowicz of the Columbia Water and Light Department said several factors besides weather can affect electricity consumption, from how people set their thermostats to the energy efficiency and design of the building.

Aspen Heights units met the minimum requirements for energy efficiency under Columbia's residential building code when they were inspected during construction, Columbia building regulations supervisor Phil Teeple said.

The code includes insulation inspection and checks on windows and doors.

Although hundreds of units failed inspection for issues ranging from framing to insulation, the problems were taken care of and inspections were approved before tenants moved in, Teeple said.

The housing complex opened later than expected in August because of construction delays. The company put up residents elsewhere and reimbursed them for the extra expense until their houses were ready, according to previous Missourian reporting.

Jacob Ruhl, whose construction company was sub-contracted last year to work on building frames for Aspen Heights, raised concerns at the parents' meeting Saturday. Via conference call, he told the group of more than a dozen parents: "There were things that went on with this project that shouldn't have gone on."

Ruhl said his contractors, Aurora Companies LLC, told him that the heating and air conditioning units ordered by Aspen Heights were too small for the size of the homes Ruhl was building.

To fix this, Aurora told Ruhl to build air dams between the first and second floors. The air dams reduce the homes' total cubic footage, which allows the HVAC units to meet code, he said.

Although the air dams satisfied code, Ruhl said he didn't think they solved the problem of heating units that were too small. Air dams like those installed at Aspen Heights can create a vacuum effect, Ruhl said, pulling cold air in and pushing hot air out.

Ruhl was told that Aurora would back-charge Aspen Heights later to address problems with the structural integrity of the buildings.

Ruhl also said that in over a month on a job, he didn't see any inspectors checking on progress. When doing construction in and around St. Louis, he said there were always inspectors checking in.

Teeple said the city performs inspections every step of the way, including during framing.

"We were there constantly," Teeple said. 

Ruhl said that because of the construction problems, as well as disagreements with Aurora over pay, his company left the project in March. Aurora's contract with Aspen Heights was terminated about a month later, he said. 

Ruhl doesn't know if the appropriate fixes were made after he left the project. 

In response to questions from the Missourian about the construction issues raised by Ruhl, Aspen Heights director of public relations Stuart Watkins said via email that Aspen Heights is "committed to working with parents on a case-by-case basis to address their concerns."

There are 318 houses at Aspen Heights, ranging in size from a 1,400-square-foot town homes to 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom houses. They all have electric heating.

Aspen Heights representatives have not yet said how they plan to reimburse residents or cover the difference owed to the city under the new $75 cap.

Crime has also been a concern. Police responded to 218 calls from Aspen Heights between Aug. 1 and Jan. 22, with reports including armed robbery and rape. The housing complex has scheduled a meeting Feb. 17 at the Aspen Heights clubhouse to discuss residents' safety. 

Saturday's meeting was organized by the parent of an Aspen Heights resident, Steve Pizzolato, who also manages a Facebook group for parents

Aspen Heights, based in Austin, Texas, has student housing in college towns: Auburn, Ala.; Charlotte, N.C.; Clemson, S.C.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Fort Collins, Colo.; Harrisonburg, Va.; Murfreesboro, Tenn.; San Antonio and San Marcos, Texas; Starkville, Miss.; Statesboro, Ga.; and Stillwater, Okla.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

The owners of the Aspen Heights apartment complex have responded to residents' complaints about utility bills by capping the monthly rate at $75. Aspen Heights is located south of Old 63 and west of U.S. 63.

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