Landlord of the Flies

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This week, let’s begin with a fascinating question. What would happen if you found the owner of a BYU-approved apartment complex, tied him up with baling wire, and forced him to explain why he charges so much more for rent than the apartments are actually worth?

Give up? It’s a trick question! You’ll never find an apartment complex owner! They’re secretive, magical little men who never appear in public, much like the Wizard of Oz, or Marlon Brando. Instead, they sit in their offices, dressed in clothes that are made of $100 bills knitted together, resting on huge piles of money while they make up excuses for raising your rent again. (Not that they actually have to GIVE excuses, of course; they just like to think them up. It keeps their walnut-sized brains from atrophying with underuse.)

But hypothetically speaking, if the aforementioned baling wire scenario were to take place, not only would you become a local hero, but you would also find out the real reason they charge so much: because they can.

As you know, if you want to go to BYU, you have to live in BYU-approved housing. The BYU-approved landlords know this, and so they can charge whatever they want, and you’ll have to pay it if you want to go to BYU.

In 1997, when I was a real journalist, my buddy Shawn and I did a series of stories about BYU housing, and how the prices compare to housing near other Utah colleges. On the average, BYU students pay about $200 a month during fall and winter semesters; students at U of U and Utah State pay between $125 and $160. (By contrast, “Snide Remarks” is FREE.) The apartments are of comparable quality, are comparably close to campus, have comparably weird roommates, etc. Why is it so much less at the other colleges? Because up there, the landlords can only get away with charging what the apartments are WORTH, as is common in a traditional capitalist society; down here, in university-forced modified-capitalism land, they could charge $10,000 per student per month, plus utilities (of COURSE utilities would be extra), and require a security deposit of one kidney and a lung, and we’d have to pay it.

BYU, of course, could do something about it. They already demand that men’s and women’s buildings be separate, for example, and there are a number of other requirements for approved housing, even down to the number of windows in each apartment. So they could just as easily tell the landlords, “Listen, Fat Boys. [Note: BYU would probably not use the term “Fat Boys.”] If you want to retain your BYU-approved status, you can’t charge more than $160 per student per month.”

And the landlords would go along with it, because being BYU-approved is a great benefit to them. With more students than apartments, it means their apartments, no matter how lousy, are always full, and they never have to advertise. (This is actually a good thing for all of us, because when they DO advertise, the ads are always dumb. Every single complex, no matter where it is located, will advertise that it is “close to campus.” Often, this is a bold-faced lie. The Glenwood, for example, is a lot of things, but “close to campus” is not one of them. I guess “close to Denny’s” isn’t very attractive as a marketing ploy, unless your target audience is drag queens and losers.)

But BYU refuses to enforce a rent cap, and so we’re stuck paying twice what the apartments would go for in the real world. But I don’t want to be bitter. I want to find silver linings on the dark ominous acid-filled clouds that hover over us like grotesque demonic harbingers of doom. So here are several dozen benefits we enjoy at BYU-approved apartment complexes that we could not enjoy elsewhere.

• CLEANING CHECKS. In the real world, such an invasion of privacy would be frowned upon, and the tenants would perhaps greet the cleaning checkers with gunfire. At BYU, though, many landlords find it necessary — again, because no one’s stopping them — to drop by every now and then and make sure you’re being clean. Clearly, an unvacuumed floor is only the first step on a road that leads to campfires in the closets and homemade gin being brewed in the bathtub.

• RANDOM, LUCK-OF-THE-DRAW ROOMMATE SELECTION. In the real world, you have some kind of say in who your roommates are, and how many you get, and if you even WANT roommates at all. Also, if a roommate is lousy, the person whose name the apartment is in can kick him out. At BYU, though, many places will cram a third bed into a room that would not normally provide adequate living space for one hamster, let alone two humans, LET ALONE THREE humans, and then put another roommate in that bed. Invariably, this “wild card” roommate is a freak and/or a weirdo, as you know. If you are lucky, he goes to his girlfriend’s house all the time. (Please do not ask me why the freaks and/or weirdos always have girlfriends when so many normal people do not, for I cannot explain it.)

• PRECIPITOUS, UNJUSTIFIED RENT HIKES, AND SUDDEN CHANGES IN POLICY SUCH AS: “EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, UTILITIES ARE NO LONGER INCLUDED IN THE RENT, AND YOU NOW HAVE TO PAY FOR A PARKING STICKER IN ORDER TO PARK IN THE PARKING LOT WHERE YOU LIVE, AND WE SPENT SOME OF YOUR DEPOSIT MONEY AT THE ARCADE SO WE NEED YOU TO GIVE US SOME MORE, OH, AND YOU ALSO HAVE TO START PAYING US $20 A MONTH FOR THE FREE OXYGEN YOU’VE BEEN SUCKING DOWN DAY AND NIGHT IN OUR APARTMENTS THAT WE’VE BEEN LETTING YOU HAVE FOR FREE, WHICH, YOU HAVE TO ADMIT, HAS BEEN PRETTY GENEROUS OF US.”

I know I said “several dozen,” but I guess I could only think of three, even when I was being sarcastic. Sorry. This column may not be all that good, but at least it’s close to campus. That’ll be $50, please.

It took me a long time to write this column. When Shawn Dickerson and I did that series of news stories in the summer of 1997, we learned a lot about local landlords and their rationale for charging as much as they do. And while they had a couple of valid reasons, none of them added up to as much they were charging. And it made me really mad.

So every time I tried to write this column, it wound up being more outraged and full of facts, figures, statistics and logical reasoning than it was funny. It took about 10 tries, over the course of a year, before I finally found a balance: funny, like people expect, but also making some solid points (at least I think so).

Off-campus housing is such an easy target, it was only a matter of time before I'd write about it. And since nearly every student has to deal with it, it's an easy subject for people to relate to. No landlords ever responded.

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