Author: Chelsea Kellogg
For many students facing their residence hall check-in at the beginning of the term, the room condition report (R.C.R.) listing damages in their new digs seems like a chore, involving more tedious paperwork. Last summer, however, some students learned firsthand the costly consequences of brushing over these compulsory damage checks.
Many students were stunned in mid-May to learn that Residential Education and Housing Services (RedEd) was charging them for extensive room damages. In the week after graduation, ResEd flooded students’ inboxes with high-priced fines to repair dorm room damages.
According to Michelle Saldana, Assistant Director of Housing Services, the most common of these damages included marks and scratches on floors and doors, missing window screens, peeling paint and dirty refrigerators, with fines varying from $25 to several hundred dollars.
“Absolutely preposterous charges,” Rebecca Rodriguez (junior) said. “Nearly all of the charges that I had acquired were damages committed prior to me even occupying the room, one of which included a charge for the window not staying up, which I remember putting in a work order for. All the charges seemed to be forced in the sense that there was no actual damage and ResEd just wanted money from me.”
For Rodriguez and many other students saddled with fines, the high cost and sheer number of room repairs seemed suspicious.
Tim Chang, Assistant Dean of Students for Residential Education and Housing Services, explained that any surplus collected from room charges does not stay with ResEd.
“Damage charges are dictated by the damages that were done. So if there are no damages, there are no damage charges. We strive for this to be the case each and every year. Once the damage funds are collected, they are turned over fully to Facilities to repair the damages. ResEd does not hold any of the funds as a surplus,” Chang said.
Many students last year paid little or no attention to the room condition report—behavior which may have caught up with them later.
“During the initial check-in process, students weren’t reviewing their R.C.R.s as closely as they should have been,” Saldana said. “At the end of the year we would show up, and it’s not there on the R.C.R., so we have to process the charge.”
First-time R.A. Zach Ehmann (sophomore) thinks he knows why students fail to give room condition reports adequate attention. “The R.C.R. form can be a little overwhelming when you are dealing with move-in and all the other over-stimulation associated with coming back to school,” Ehmann said.
Some students believe they weren’t properly warned about their liability or the cost associated with common damages. According to ResEd, a nail left in the wall will cost both roommates $50. Failure to remove putty or adhesives from the wall costs another $50. Marks on the front door, even on the outward-facing side, is also $50, which is again charged to both roommates.
Whenever damage is found in a room, Reslife initially charges all residents the full cost of the damage. If one of the roommates owns up to causing the damage, the other will have the charge reversed on his or her student account. If both of the roommates admit to causing the damage, ResEd refunds each student half the charge.
One R.A. in an upperclassman hall who declined to be named said ResEd checked rooms for damage more thoroughly last summer than in years past. “In my residence hall the amount of damage was similar to years past, but there were many charges that would not have been charged in previous years,” the R.A. said.
At the end of the semester, R.A.’s were not apprised of the policy tightening and operated on the assumption that minor infractions would not be charged, just as in prior years. “As a result, many residents were told by their R.A. that they would probably not be charged but were then charged later by ResEd,” the R.A. said.
A painless check-out is no guarantee that a student will not face fines. After check-out, students always receive a half-sheet of paper reminding them that a professional staff member will later inspect the room. An R.A.’s assurance that a room is in good shape has no bearing on this professional inspection.
Saldana said R.A.s should not tell residents there will be no damage charges, and students should not believe R.A.’s if they do. “They are not the ones that are going to determine whether charges are going to be posted on your account,” she said. Graduate hall coordinators, not R.A.s, assess the damage in each room, typically 24 hours after check-out.
The stricter ResEd standards led to overlapping, extravagant charges for some residents. U.E.P. major Jack Moreau (junior) was charged for a filthy room, a dirty sink, dry-erase markers on the mirror and personal items left in the room. “Most of those things would all seem to fit under ‘filthy room,’ but instead they gave us individual charges,” Moreau said.
This sort of discrepancy was common, according to the anonymous R.A. “Basic marks on the floor and walls were not charged in the past, but last year they were. Cleaning charges were also enforced to a greater extent,” the R.A. said.
After damages were identified in May, fines were billed to student accounts immediately—before students had the chance to appeal. Yady Barajas in Student Business Services explained the reason for the tight timeline. “Because we have such a short time between students leaving the dorm and the next billing statement (usually the 15th of the month), we request the charges as soon as possible thereafter,” Barajas said.
Most students who were charged appealed in an attempt to reduce or eliminate their charges. “We did have the damage appeal process, and we did reverse a large number of charges,” Saldana said. “We received approximately 550 appeals. Of those, 75 percent were reversed.”
Thus, many students were able to nullify all their charges through appeals. “The appeal process seemed fair in my opinion. I didn’t end up with any charges in my room at all,” Jessica Grenader (junior) said.
Chang said charges collected from students are never used to pay for the repair of damages that are appealed successfully. “If there is a damage charge which has been reversed, facilities covers the repair under a general wear and tear budget,” he said.
During breaks and summers, non-Occidental affiliated organizations stay in residence halls for conferences, meeting and special events. They are likewise subject to a room damage contract, and fines charged are typically higher than those for students. According to Occidental’s 2011 conference planner, provided by Hospitality Services, per instance fines for conference groups include $50 for propped doors and $250 for unauthorized heating devices, such as hotplates and irons. General cleaning is billed at $25 per hour per person, plus materials and overhead.
Other schools, such as Brown University and the College of William and Mary, have fines and damage policies similar to Occidental’s.
Brown, a room condition report is filed within the first two days of residency and returned to an R.A. Subsequently, any damages to the dorm room are charged to a student account and an appeal is required to reverse the charges. William and Mary differs by charging the students a $75 deposit when they move in and refunding their deposit when they move out.
Although ResEd does not charge students a deposit, it is unclear whether they should be held accountable to the guidelines of the California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). The DCA stipulates that a landlord wishing to withhold any amount from the security deposit must provide the tenant with an itemized list of damages and receipts proving the cost of repair was as charged.
ResEd, which contracts out end-of-the-year room repairs, does not provide receipts proving the charges cost the same amount they billed students.
One Eagle Rock handyman and landlord who declined to be named believes the Occidental room damage policy is neither unfair nor exorbitant.
“The prices seem fair. What you have to understand about organizations [like Occidental] is that their employees are unionized, and they have to pay them higher wages,” he said. “I would charge similar prices to repaint a room or repair a scratch.”
There are solutions that could minimize student outrage over damage charges. Before students leave for home at the end of the year, they could be informed of their charges in order to plead their case in person. Instead of a checklist, ResEd could take photographs of the state of the room at the beginning of the year—leaving no question about which damages are new and which developed over the course of the year.
The current communication mechanism between students and ResEd is generally poor. While during the year students can pass along grievances through their R.A.s, the summer appeals process has no such mediator. Although the room damage policy is online, the list detailing the price of each infraction is not.
ResEd hosts community forums every Thursday at 8 p.m. where students can vent frustrations, but these are poorly attended. In an internal change for this year, R.A. training now stresses extensive room checks, and the room condition reports were revamped to include more white space for handwritten comments from R.A.s and residents.
“This year, ResEd staff (including R.A.s) have been much more careful to mark down all defects in the room so that residents are not charged for damage they did not do,” the anonymous R.A. said.
Ehmann said R.A.s are now cognizant that they bear responsibility to prevent frivolous and excessive damage charges. “R.A.s are well-aware that we will share part of the blame should unwarranted charges occur, so we are doing our best because it’s also in our best interest. We don’t want to let our residents down, and we don’t want to have to deal with disputes later either,” he said.
Saldana said ResEd made these and other adjustments to prevent a repeat of last semester. “The summer was a learning process for all of us. We’re making sure we’re establishing the systems and making sure we’re educating not only the R.A.s., but also the residents,” she said.
Although her advice comes too late for fall semester check-in, Saldana suggests that residents take time with their room condition reports in the future—if experience has not already taught them so. “If you look at the back of the R.C.R., it actually says allow 20 minutes to complete an R.C.R. for each room,” she said.
One question still remains as to the annual recurrence of room damage charges. “If they actually fix all the damages to a room every year, then how are there still damages to report on the room condition report each year?” Alexander King ’10 asked.
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