University of Miami student Amanda Mohamad has been living in a hotel for a month. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Mohamad, a sophomore journalism major, has been waiting for her one-bedroom apartment at the Cloisters to finish construction. She, along with hundreds of other student residents, had planned to move in Aug. 18 — until the project’s developer Landmark Properties sent a last-minute message about construction delays at the 115-unit complex.
Now, parents of Cloisters tenants say they are afraid to walk away from leases should the behemoth developer take legal action against them.
The two-part complex at 5830 and 5840 Southwest 57th Avenue in Coral Gables includes new construction townhouses and renovated apartment units, totaling 296 bedrooms for students. Amenities include a pool and fitness center, the complex’s website shows.
Since alerting tenants and their parents of construction delays, the Atlanta-based developer has been paying to house students at the Biltmore and Thesis, luxury hotels near the Coral Gables campus.
Frustrated parents of Cloisters residents have turned to social media to exchange information with one another. They made a Facebook group –– The UM Cloister Cluster –– where parents share photos of the site and intermittent communications from Landmark.
“We have all been scammed,” Michele Paliseno, a parent, posted.
Units not as advertised
Landmark was able to receive county approvals for the townhouses on Sept. 1, and move residents into the townhomes that weekend. Upon arrival, parents said they found units were not as promised, with some missing laundry machines and furniture, and fire alarms going off. The pool, grounds and other common spaces remain under construction and far from completion, photos show.
In a statement, Atlanta-based Landmark said, “Move-in day can often be chaotic, but our maintenance team and the general contractor have worked closely with residents to quickly remedy any issues that were not satisfactory on move-in day for townhome residents. These issues have been resolved.”
The developer also apologized for delays in communication with residents.
Apartment tenants, like Mohamad, have been stuck living at the Thesis, in the meantime. Lucky for her, she said she eventually got off the waitlist for a mini fridge and a microwave.
While apartment residents remain holed up in the hotel, photos of the units are leaving parents concerned they are not receiving the “fully renovated” units they were promised. The Cloisters website was quietly changed to remove that language. In a statement, Landmark said “Most fixtures, appliances, finishes, flooring and furniture were upgraded to new across renovated units.”
A thorny contract
Meanwhile, some parents want out of the leases they signed, saying Landmark has failed to deliver on its promise. But the fine print is not that simple.
“Basically we all hung ourselves with their lease,” said Jeff Buttrick, the parent of a would-be Cloisters resident. He is referring to the 56-page document signed by tenants and their guarantors.
The contract allows for Landmark to house students in “alternative accommodations” while it works to deliver the units. Alternative accommodations include hotel rooms, according to the agreement, despite the dramatic difference in livability between a hotel room and a full apartment.
The language in the lease shows that tenants have the right to break the contract after 30 days if the unit has not been delivered. However, if Landmark provides alternative accommodations, such as hotel rooms, that right is voided.
Parents say Landmark is rushing to get approvals and move students in this Friday because Saturday is Day 30, when tenants gain more solid footing to end the contract. Local attorney Jacqueline Salcines confirmed she is representing a number of Cloisters parents.
Buttrick didn’t wait for Day 30 to make his decision. He moved his daughter, Jenna, into a different apartment, and refused to pay Landmark her August and September rent.
“We have not collected a penny of their food reimbursements. She did not stay in the hotel. We have not done anything to collect a penny from them,” he said. Getting out of the lease has been tricky, though. According to Buttrick, Landmark has insisted that his daughter find someone to take over her lease.
That has proven difficult. They found three potential tenants for Landmark, but each backed out after seeing the site in person.
“It feels a bit scary,” one previously interested renter who Buttrick declined to identify texted on Wednesday, noting the ongoing construction. “My parents aren’t feeling confident in signing.”
Buttrick thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed his daughter’s lease with the Cloisters earlier this year. She had lived in another Landmark student housing complex last year, the Standard, and had a great experience.
“The other one was beautiful,” he said. “It was clean.”
Buttrick’s experience with Landmark at the Cloisters is hardly unheard of, though.
Delay, hotel, stipend, repeat
Landmark, led by CEO Wes Rogers, is one of the largest student housing developers in the country, with $11 billion in assets under management. It has student housing complexes across the country, including in Knoxville, near the University of Tennessee. Landmark completed the 234-unit, eight-story Standard at Knoxville in January 2017, a full semester late, Knox News reported. Landmark followed its playbook in Knoxville, putting students up in hotels and providing them with a food stipend on Visa gift cards, according to the publication.
That same fall semester, construction delays at the Standard at Boone in North Carolina dragged on, according to the High Country Press. Students were put up in hotels and handed Visa gift cards, and moved into the building in late December, the outlet said.
In 2019, the Tallahassee Democrat reported construction and move-in delays at the Standard at Tallahassee. And In 2021, students moving into the Standard at Austin in Texas found rats, trash, dirty water and shorted electrical outlets in the newly finished building, according to KVUE.
While parents of students at the Cloisters wait to hear if the complex receives its temporary certificate of occupancy, concerns remain about moving in when the site has ongoing outdoor construction and none of the promised amenities. In a statement, Landmark declined to offer any rent concessions, pointing to the hotel accommodations it provided, as well as per diem provisions for food, laundry and storage.
Buttrick just wants out. “I’m not looking to sue them. I just want to be done with them,” he said. “The least they could do is let the kids out of the lease.”