Imagine: a newly renovated one-bedroom loft apartment with granite countertops and in-unit washer/dryer located in the heart of the Central West End. Advertisements for "The Michelangelo" boasted a fenced dog park and free WiFi. It could be yours for just $800 per month.
When Leah Dublin, 25, started looking to move from Kentucky to St. Louis for graduate school two years ago, that's the apartment she says Asprient Properties described to her. She signed the lease remotely. But when she arrived, she says, she found something quite different.
The moment Dublin walked in the door, the apartment seemed much smaller than she had been told. There was no washer or dryer in the unit, just a coin laundry in the basement. Dublin wasn't convinced that the countertops were granite — unless granite tiles, complete with caulking between them, are now a thing.
And outside, the "dog park" was a courtyard. Tenants paid for their own WiFi. Dublin began to suspect that the photos in those advertisements had been touched up.
The Riverfront Times spoke to Dublin and four other residents who lived in the Michelangelo at the same time. All report similar experiences, from the company's initial enticements to the arguments over the security deposit at the end of their leases. Some mention they were promised a game room and a fountain in addition to the dog park and free WiFi. But the "fountain" was apparently a flower pot. The game room was the basement laundry area.
Dublin recalls a series of interactions that began early in her leasing process. "I should have known that something was up," she says. When she hesitated to sign the lease, an Asprient rep warned that she wouldn't get an apartment unless she committed immediately.
At one point, Dublin asked to see the floor plan for her new apartment. She says they told her that because of the renovations, they didn't have current blueprints. Someone offered to draw the layout for her, she says, but never delivered.
She signed anyway, but her unease continued even after moving in. Dublin and her fellow tenants say they had trouble reaching Asprient employees by phone or email. Voice mails and messages were rarely returned. (Dublin was told that the staffers she needed to reach were changing departments; another tenant was told his contact was on vacation — only after two weeks of radio silence.) Maintenance requests were filled slowly; Dublin's promised in-unit washer/dryer wasn't installed for a full month.
Although tenants noted that the maintenance workers themselves were friendly and helpful, the property managers didn't seem on board.
"I feel like once they realized, 'This is a young woman moving in from out of town,' they played to that," Dublin says.
Dublin found herself feuding with her landlords over parking: They told her it was optional, but kept charging her even after she tried to cancel the spot — and even though she later found out they'd leased her parking space to another person at the same time.
Roaches were another problem. "It was hard to sleep knowing that there were cockroaches around," she says. "It was just awful."
An Asprient representative told Dublin that the building-wide roach problem was her fault. Another tenant in the building provided emails showing she was also told it was her fault and charged for pest control. (Meanwhile, a third tenant says she requested more thorough bug spraying for weeks before Asprient finally moved her dishwasher and determined that construction crews hadn't closed up the holes behind her kitchen appliances and cupboards — apparently that's how the bugs were getting in.)
But for sheer pettiness, nothing could top the toilet seat.
When Dublin's toilet seat broke, maintenance replaced it — with a seat that had clearly already been used, to the point it was speckled with both paint and dried urine, she says. Adding insult to injury, they charged her $20 for the honor, only removing the charge when she complained repeatedly.
"It was very obvious that they were there for my rent check, that was all," Dublin says.
All told, between the not-really-free WiFi, surprise laundry costs, mouse traps and bug spray, and parking fees charged while she didn't have a car, Dublin estimates she lost $800 while living with Asprient. And that's not counting the security deposit, which the company failed to return. She calculates that she spent around twenty hours arguing with Asprient on the phone or in person.
But some of the costs of living at the Michelangelo couldn't be tallied in terms of time and money.
"That year in my life was already hard because it was my first year of graduate school, but not having a home where I felt safe and secure and in control made it a much more trying year," says Dublin.
At the end of her lease, Dublin moved across the street. She recalls several young couples making the exact same change.
"Only after moving into a better space managed by a much more honest company did I feel my life in St. Louis really take off in a positive direction."
- PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
- Elif Ilhan says "surprise fees" plagued her during her time renting from Asprient.
Leah Dublin and her neighbors aren't the only St. Louis residents to have tangled with Asprient.
Since its founding in 2002, the privately held St. Louis-based company has grown from a small concern to a big landlord in some increasingly sought-after neighborhoods, including the Central West End. Asprient now boasts more than 1,200 units that attract young, lower-income and student tenants.
The company maintains a low profile — other than founder Sid Chakraverty being named to the St. Louis Business Journal's "30 Under 30" list in 2012, Asprient has engendered little press coverage. But it's garnered dozens of one-star Yelp reviews claiming mismanagement and shady dealing, several Reddit threads devoted to warning prospective tenants to "stay away from Asprient," 34 complaints with the Better Business Bureau in three years, and at least 22 lawsuits filed against the company or its agents.
While some of these renters' complaints are less extreme than Dublin's, many share common themes. As just one example, Elif Ilhan and her fiance signed a lease in the same building as Dublin, starting July 1, 2014. But an Asprient agent contacted them to say the apartment building was full and they couldn't move in until August. After some finagling, the couple got an apartment on July 14.
The next year of their lives was full of surprise fees and often-broken appliances. "I don't understand how they still have any business at all," Ilhan says. "I have never heard anything positive about them since living there. Almost everyone I knew in their complex was unhappy with how things were going with them."
Some of the stories have drawn the attention of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, or EHOC, a local not-for-profit fair housing enforcement agency that takes complaints relating to potentially illegal or discriminatory actions by landlords.
Zachary Schmook works as the managing attorney for EHOC, where he's seen clear patterns in the complaints the agency receives about Asprient.
"They take over and clear a property to gentrify it," Schmook explains. The people who get hurt are often the current tenants, who signed leases to other landlords — and then find their rents increased by Asprient after the purchase. "It seems like they have a motto of: Take over a new property, flip it, try and charge [more] rent."
Based on the reports Schmook has seen, tenants who don't sign a new Asprient lease allege that they've had their locks changed illegally, or been threatened with lock changes and otherwise inconvenienced — until they move out, leaving room for someone who will pay a higher rent.
Those people are often grad students or transplants, like Dublin and her neighbors at the Michelangelo. And once they move in, their concerns often trigger a whole new round of complaints.
Since 2013, Schmook says, Asprient has been named in the second highest number of complaints against any individual landlord in EHOC's jurisdiction, which covers all of metropolitan St. Louis in both Missouri and Illinois. The company is topped only by the St. Louis Housing Authority, which manages about 3,000 units and 7,000 additional vouchers for those seeking public housing. Asprient, by its own accounting, has closer to 1,300 units. Yet EHOC has received only two more complaints about the housing authority than Asprient.
"Most of the worst landlords we deal with tend to be very small landlords who just don't know what they're doing," Schmook says. "Most of the bigger landlords can be expected to follow the regular procedure and go through court processes. It's unusual to have someone who is big like they are, but also, based on report, at least, taking these extralegal means to accomplish the evictions."
Through its attorney, Asprient declined to comment for this story.
The complaints made to Schmook's agency show multiple concerns, including utility shut-offs by the landlord, illegal evictions, improper termination notices, problems with security deposits and even one allegation that a tenant was coerced into renewing a lease. Reports about Asprient make up seven percent of all complaints EHOC has received about landlord utility shut-offs. The complaints come from six different Asprient properties, all in the Central West End.
Schmook notes that it's important to understand that these complaints only reflect calls that EHOC has received, not the general tenant experience city-wide.
Schmook also notes that additional complaints may have been filed under Asprient's multiple aliases, and as such could be excluded from the data he's surveyed. EHOC has found that Asprient uses aliases that include variations on "Kilamanjaro" (spelled incorrectly in several limited liability company names), K2, Alps, Katmai, Mauna Kea, Himalaya, Yukon, SLU Apartments and Ludwig Partners. Lawsuits and consumer complaints have been filed against several of these names; others have been filed against Asprient or Chakraverty himself.
One such lawsuit was filed by a tenant named Nancy Cunningham. In 2015, Asprient purchased her building. Several months later, Cunningham sued Chakraverty and Asprient for constructive eviction, negligence, trespassing and infliction of mental distress.
Cunningham had lived in her building for seventeen years before Asprient bought it, during which time she was an "ideal tenant" — never once late on her rent, according to the petition filed by her lawyer, Eric Banks.
Then came the day described in her lawsuit.
Banks writes that Cunningham returned from a "grueling day of work" to "enjoy the peace and comfort of her home and pets and to nurse a potentially chronic medical condition." But when she reached her door, she found that her key no longer worked.
She had received no notice from Asprient that her locks would be changed, the suit says.
When she called the company, its agent "said that the lock on the Plaintiff's front door has been changed because they thought she was a squatter," wrote Banks. "It strains credulity to believe this tale. Plaintiff has a lease that allows her to peacefully live in her building. Squatters don't have leases. Plaintiff has a wreath on her door and a welcome mat in front of her door. Squatters generally prefer not to call attention that they are occupying their premises. Plaintiff has thousands of dollars of expensive furniture in her home. Squatters generally are not so well heeled. Plaintiff has two cats. Squatters generally cannot afford pets. You cannot imagine a plain, a world, a universe or a dimension where any of this makes sense. Defendants' explanations for their illegal acts are fruitless, worthless and without merit."
While Cunningham left the building, seeking help for her medical condition, the suit says, Asprient unlocked her door. But staffers never notified Cunningham; her neighbor found the door unlocked.
And when Cunningham was forced to take off work to get new keys from her landlord, the employee handling the transaction "behaved in a surly manner, as though all of this was somehow Plaintiff's fault." As Banks writes, she "never received the courtesy of a response not to mention an apology."
Cunningham's petition suggests mere incompetence as the cause: "Competent employees don't confuse fully furnished apartments with that belonging to a squatter." But Schmook notes that Cunningham's case looks similar to multiple other complaints coming from individuals who did not sign new leases after Asprient purchased their building.
The suit has since been settled out of court.
- PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
- Zachary Schmook has seen clear patterns in complaints against Asprient.
It's not just Asprient's eviction tactics that cause concern. "The leases themselves are problematic," says Schmook. "They give Asprient a lot of authority over the tenants that may or may not actually be legal."
One lease obtained by the RFT included clauses that allow the landlord to terminate the lease if the tenant breaks any of 23 listed rules, and also gives the landlord the right to change those rules at any time. These rules bar tenants from operating their own thermostats, swearing or leaving grease on their stove. Another clause deducts a non-refundable $75 for "administration fees and inspection fees" from the security deposit. The same clause permits the use of that security deposit to pay $50 to $90 towards government inspections.
According to a class action lawsuit filed by St. Louis attorney Cyrus Dashtaki, the last two clauses are explicitly illegal. According to Missouri law, security deposits can only be used to pay for damages and late rent. (Dashtaki declined comment, saying he does not discuss pending cases.)
Those security deposits have been the subject of dozens of complaints, both to the BBB and in lawsuits. Several tenants who talked about their Asprient experience with the RFT say they were told verbally that their apartment was in great condition. But not one of them received their full deposit refund.
One "move-out" receipt provided to the RFT says, "$165 lease charges & $45 unit charges = $255 charges." That's a math error that one tenant says cost him a $40 refund. (That same tenant says he spoke with maintenance, who told him he should receive his entire deposit back because his apartment was in good condition.)
Another tenant, Lisa "Ann" Teren, took Asprient to court over her security deposit. Her lawsuit details many of the same problems as other tenants reported to the RFT — poor communication, unrefunded deposits — as well as some bigger ones, including piles of trash in hallways that contractors didn't clean up.
EHOC has reviewed Teren's complaints, and several similar ones. Schmook says, "They don't take a lot of consideration for folks that are actually living there when they start stripping stuff off the walls or changing the floors. People are basically living in the middle of a construction zone unless they agree to be moved to an already renovated site, often at a higher rate."
But that's not what Teren sued over. She sued because Asprient charged her, among other things, $500 for a bleach stain on her unit's carpet. That's even though her move-in form (filed with her original landlord, who owned the building when she moved in) listed the stain as pre-existing.
In her lawsuit, Teren says she twice requested her security deposit, in addition to a reimbursement for the costs of representing herself in court. Her suit also cites the law at issue in the class action suit filed by Dashtaki.
She won when a circuit court judge ruled in her favor in April. She didn't get the full amount she sued for — just a refund of her original security deposit. Even then, Asprient appealed the case.
"I think it's not about the money for them," Teren alleges. "They don't want it to show on record that I won so that they can take advantage of other people. They get off easy even if I do win all my money, because there's numerous other people that they have taken advantage of."
Finally, last month, Asprient wrote Teren a check for the deposit money and dropped its attempt at appeal.
To Teren, the refund didn't cover everything she lost pursuing her claim. But in the end, she says, she just didn't want to lose any more time to the company. She cashed the check.
- PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
- Tenants at the Michelangelo say they were offered discounts or maintenance in exchange for a good review on Yelp (or to change a bad one).
The 34 complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau about Asprient reflect what tenants have told the RFT: They were promised things that were never delivered, blamed for maintenance problems, ignored, and taken advantage of. The BBB retains complaints on its website for a three-year period.
One complaint reads, "I feel since I was from out of town I was severely taken advantage of. ... Landlord messaged me saying the apartment was cleaned & ready; apartment was filthy with dirt, dust & debris everywhere, paint peeling in bathtub, fruit flies everywhere. He told me he'd waive the $60 cleaning fee since the apartment wasn't cleaned. ... [Then] I found mouse droppings on personal clothes & belongings, which had to be thrown away, in winter time, & they put mouse traps everywhere. Heater didn't work in winter, they tried getting money for me for that, accusing me of breaking the wires (I didn't even know where the heater was) & took 2 weeks for them to repair — I was without heat for that long."
Asprient responded to the complaint in writing. The company wrote, "I will say, It is VERY convenient that we are just now receiving this complaint and hearing about these issues when she is getting ready to move out next week! It is obvious that she is preemptively positioning herself for a security deposit refund when she knows she has trashed the place and won't be receiving a full refund. ... If she leaves the unit in bad shape she will be charged for the damage. We are quite confident it will be in poor shape considering when we visited last year to fix the window she broke, we found dog feces and urine all over the apartment floor. It is a shame that in this day and age that tenants feel the need to preemptively complain to the BBB in an attempt to extort a higher deposit refund right before they are to move out."
Asprient has responded to every visible complaint on the BBB website, with strikingly detailed (and feisty) replies in every case. Only four of the 34 claims have been marked as "resolved" on the BBB website, meaning that tenant and landlord have come to a mutual agreement.
A representative from the BBB says that Asprient's B rating is "not the best," but that complaint volume "is a part of why they have a B rating." As far as the BBB is concerned, there are "no red flags" indicating that Asprient is an illegitimate business, which is one of the agency's chief concerns.
And the company does have its defenders. Tom S. writes on Yelp, "Although I have read some complaints in prior reviews. I can honestly say that my experience has been a great one. I am confident that with any future dealings they will be dealt with professionally and quickly. Thanks Asprient! I couldn't be happier at this point."
And Marissa B. writes, "I have rented from a few different agencies in the St. Louis area, and this one is by far the best I've dealt with. I highly recommend this agency."
But on Yelp, Asprient has received about twice as many one-star reviews as five-star reviews. Several one-star reviews note that the writer was contacted by the company and offered money in exchange for a better review. Two tenants, one of them Ilhan, confirmed to the RFT that they personally were offered discounts or maintenance for a good review (or to change a bad review); all five tenants who spoke to the RFT confirmed that they knew someone who had that experience.
The Riverfront Times contacted Asprient to discuss the various claims against them. The company was given thirteen specific questions about various lawsuits and complaints.
In response, Asprient's attorney, Ira Berkowitz, provided this statement, included in its entirety:
"Asprient Properties is committed to providing quality apartments at affordable prices. We take our renters' concerns seriously and encourage them to work with us to resolve any individual issue. With nearly 1,300 units located in vibrant neighborhoods where young professionals and graduate students want to live, Asprient Properties has many satisfied renters who enjoy living in a property that has been totally renovated and offers a great value."
Two hours later, Berkowitz sent an additional email. "As Asprient's attorney I will be carefully reviewing and researching your article. I trust you will not take liberties or misrepresent the facts; that you will make sure your sources are accurate and if quoting private or public sources, such as Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, that they can back up their statements with accurate data — otherwise my client will not hesitate to take legal action against you, them and the RFT. I would appreciate that instead of using words like 'most complaints for a landlord of this size,' that you will publish the actual numbers of complaints and total number of units.
"I have had success in the past in claims against authors and publishers of articles written that were not fully and accurately fact-checked and sourced."
The lawyer then directed us to an article about his success in a $10 million suit against a newspaper in Florida. He did not mention that the verdict had been overturned by the judge, a decision that was later upheld in appellate court.
- COVER BY KELLY GLUECK
Even as tenants complain, Asprient continues to increase its holdings. The company has gotten into the development business — in 2014, the Post-Dispatch reported that Victor Alston, identified as Asprient's company manager in business filings and "an owner," signed on as an investor in the Polar Wave project, a renovation of an old ice plant bringing 43 apartments to Soulard.
Last year, Asprient gained city approval for a seven-story, $29 million building in the DeBaliviere neighborhood near its current holdings. The Post-Dispatch also reported that Asprient had recently gotten city approval to build a five-story edifice with 118 apartment units right next to the Polar Wave building. Though a permit denial halted the project temporarily, it is now proceeding.
Alderman Jack Coatar says he is excited for the newest development. "I think it'd be great for the neighborhood. It'd bring some density to the southeast corner of the neighborhood," Coatar says. "I think a building like this would be would be well-suited there."
Coatar was unaware of the lawsuits and complaints against Asprient.
"I've toured his existing project in Soulard; it looks great. I've talked to some tenants there; they seem happy — so no, it doesn't concern me at this point," says Coatar.
Alston and his partners could be getting plenty of help from taxpayers. The Post-Dispatch reported that the completed Polar Wave project was eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits. It also received a ten-year tax abatement. Asprient's newer Soulard project is also being considered for a ten-year tax abatement, according to city records.
For former tenants like Dublin, that's a problem. "Tax rebates should be given to businesses that care about the community in which they operate and the people that live there," she says. "Asprient has done very little to convince me they do."
She adds, "I just wish people knew the truth about Asprient. And not the truth they touch up, like the photos they use to advertise their apartments. I wish people knew how Asprient will treat them after they sign their lease."
Dublin still lives close to an Asprient building. She recalls seeing people getting their keys after signing their leases, looking like young, excited college students — just like her a few years ago — maybe getting their first apartment. She says, "I want so badly for them to know what they could potentially be getting into."