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Elias Ghribi's parents pay for him to live the good life while at school.

Luxury apartments are swarming the U, but students can't buy serenity


The sun shines hotly above the Marshall on a May afternoon, casting angular shadows over the apartment complex. Rays bounce off the building's panels, transforming maroon and gold into sickly hues of salmon and yellow.

On the ground floor, the TargetExpress' doors slide open where Marshall-University High School welcomed students from 1924-1982. Those spilling out aren't much older than the kids who once roamed these halls. They abide by a strict dress code: flip-flops, shorts, earbuds, and CamelBak water bottles snug in the pocket of North Face backpacks.

A few turn the corner to the apartment building's main entrance. Inside, the lobby's empty couches offer an array of squares that complete the Marshall's modernist cereal box aesthetic.

The luxury apartments around the University of Minnesota tend to have variations of this look: colored panels, loft ceilings, modernist furniture. Whether it's the Bridges' "Instagrammable views," the Marshall's "all-inclusive living," or FloCo's "amenities list that's longer than a rock star's tour rider," their ambition is the same: convenient luxury a considerable leap up from college life's tradition of casual squalor.

On campuses across the country, they're the only thing rising faster than tuition. Along with the Marshall, a company called EdR manages student properties in New York, Florida, California, and other states, and trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Asset Campus Housing of Texas controls Stadium Village Flats, Minnesota's portion of the company's 113,500 student-filled beds. Trinitas is almost doubling the beds near the University of Nebraska.

Rent can climb as high as $1,155 a month per bedroom. To compensate, EdR dazzles students with amenities ranging from state-of-the-art tanning booths to free cappuccinos. It's as if dorm life married Midtown Manhattan and decided to have lots and lots of babies.

A life of luxury and 30-foot beer bongs awaits students at the Marshall.

A life of luxury and 30-foot beer bongs awaits students at the Marshall.

Granite countertops and burrito joints

It's "Resident Appreciation Week" at the Marshall. The scent of grease from the morning's complimentary Chik-Fil-A breakfast lingers at the front desk.

"Welcome to the Marshall," leasing agent Amanda Korts says with a smile, a line she will repeat as if there's some sort of welcoming quota she's required to reach before revealing the building's amenities.

Rihanna and Drake's "Work" echoes through the first floor as Korts bounces between the Marshall's offerings — a volleyball court, computer lab, pool, gym, yoga room, and tanning booths.

Korts has resided in the Marshall since it opened in 2014, arriving after a lackluster year living in Como where the distance from school proved too much for her studies.

"I couldn't be that far away from class. I was really unmotivated," she says. "Once it started to snow and the 3 was running late, it was like, 'I'm late to class. I'll just skip them all. I'll catch up.' I just never caught up."

The Marshall appealed because it's so close to campus. The massive, 994-bedroom behemoth sits on the corner of Fifth Street and 14th Avenue Southeast. It's a three-block walk from the East Bank and only a drunken stumble away from Dinkytown's burrito joints.

With the Marshall's free printing, study rooms, and proximity to campus, it had everything Korts needed to care for herself and focus on her studies.

But the bottom rent, $695 a month to share a bedroom in a 500-square-foot, fully furnished living space, was beyond her price range. So she hired on as a "community assistant," receiving a discount to work in the office, guide tours, inspect apartments, and convince prospective renters to sign a lease.

On the fourth floor, Korts heads down a maze-like hallway, pausing as we pass a patch of drywall mud on the otherwise purple wall. The byproduct of rowdy college kids, she says. Though the Marshall tries to create a casual if studious vibe for its residents, it's not uncommon for parties to go through the roof... and walls.

"There have been days where you'll come back from the weekend, and people have punched holes in the walls and stuff like that," Korts says. "I don't want to say there's a sense of entitlement, but there almost is."

She leads the way inside a one-bedroom, one-bathroom model. It's decked out with granite countertops, GE stainless steel appliances, and wood floors that lead to the bedroom, where a full-size TempurPedic mattress and desk-and-chair combo hint at the unit's $1,155-per-month price tag.

These features are in every unit in the Marshall. You can lease an 825-square-foot two-bedroom for $880 per person per month. If you're willing to share a bedroom, four-person occupancy starts at $595 monthly for 750 square feet. A two-floor townhouse, with four bedrooms and adjoining private bathrooms, rings in at $790 per person per month.

"You've shared enough," Korts says. "You get to a point in your life where you're ready for your own bathroom."

Certainly the folks at EdR think so. Chris Allen of corporate HQ in Memphis says the goal is to build communities, while still offering private luxury.

Alex Hotz's dad doesn't want him living in a dump.

Alex Hotz's dad doesn't want him living in a dump.

"It's not our intent to build a community to flip it for a quick dollar. We want things to keep in our portfolio that make sense for us as a company, and are assets to the community, rather than being simply a source of profit."

Part of that comes from working with universities and hiring students and alumni.

"Anything that we're putting into our housing product is something that makes sense with the university's goal of driving student success," Allen says.

Setting aside the factory-like connotations of this "product," the Marshall's fitness centers, free printing, and computer lab encourage residents to study and stay active. But they can't keep out the party.

Party till 7 a.m.

Korts isn't the only Marshall resident who's tired of the partying. Noisy floormates fall somewhere in the middle of the list of Ashna Patel's complaints.

After a disappointing freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Patel transferred to the Minneapolis campus in 2014.

Wahu Student Living.

Wahu Student Living.

"I picked this building because it looks nice," she says. "My dad and I went to check it out, and we just kinda signed the lease. But it hasn't worked out very well."

Cracks in the thin walls started appearing in the first week the building opened.

Her neighbors above, a group of Gopher football players, threw parties almost every night. After one baller bro found a 30-foot-long beer bong, the lettermen had the genius idea to snake the hose down to the courtyard from their balcony, pouring liquor down the throats of partiers passing by.

The affairs would often last until 6 a.m., providing a jarring contrast to the woman pictured on the Marshall's website, studying quietly and modelling the building's "student-focused environment."

"I understand if you lived in your own house, it would make more sense to party like that," Patel says. "But I feel like, in an apartment complex where people are focused and trying to study and achieve stuff, this shouldn't be an issue."

Others she met proved no more amiable. She opted for a random roommate assignment, thinking the Marshall's individual leasing practice would prevent any disagreements over who owed what in rent. But an apartment manager was at her door two to three times a week to deal with her problem roommates.

"[My roommates] didn't pay rent or utilities, and the Marshall did nothing about it. I feel like, if I'm signing an individual lease, I shouldn't be in charge of handling my roommates' utility bills," Patel says.

FloCo

FloCo

Her frustration peaked one night before an 8 a.m. final exam, when a partying roommate kept her awake until 7 a.m.

"It was a school night, so you'd think the Marshall or security would do something about it. They did nothing."

But with upward of a thousand students living less than three blocks away from a Big 10 campus, partying is inevitable. No one will ever stop this staple of the great American undergraduate experience.

For the truly studious, not even the onsite pool or gym offer respite. Patel, a psychology and pre-med major, says her credit load precludes time in the tanning booths. "I don't have time to use many amenities," she says flatly.

Who's picking up the tab?

It is the bank accounts of Mom and Dad that have made places like the Marshall possible. Patel's current roommate, Elias Ghribi, says his parents are covering his $790 a month room in a four-person townhouse, which includes a deck, in-unit laundry, and faux-leather sofa.

"Parents who can afford it, and parents who aren't willing to say 'no,'" says Ghribi. "That's a trend that you'll see here." He admits his parents didn't say no either.

Ghribi scrambled to find housing for his sophomore year. After getting used to the compact, energetic flow of dorm life, he found the Marshall to be an upgrade. He has his own room, bathroom, and laundry, three features absent from the dorms.

"If you look at the demographic of who lives here, it's mostly white, upper-middle class kids," Ghribi says. "It seems to be just the luxury of living in a place like this. It's not clean inside, but it looks super nice."

But the luxury began to fade for Ghribi once he realized why people like the football bros move into the Marshall: to party.

"Luxury apartments are definitely results of economic privilege, pampering, and the weird obsession with the party culture in Dinkytown," Ghribi says. "It's like a playground."

And it's open 24/7, with virtually no rules. Ghribi says that after his roommates got caught smoking in their apartment on the first day of their lease, the building's management "gave us advice on how to not get caught."

But having no rules can't justify the price.

"I have no incentive to live here," Ghribi says. "There's no reason I should live this well. My parents aren't super rich, and it's a draining amount of money."

International nightmares

Wahu Student Living apartments stand on the other side of campus in Stadium Village, offering the same luxury in a different package. Copies of the Wall Street Journal rest on a lobby coffee table. The Food Network mutely displays Asian dishes. "Safe and Sound" by Capital Cities plays as Luke Liu, a student from China, sits in a statuesque modernist chair, waiting for a neighbor.

He's lived in Wahu since September. He didn't come for the sweeping views of Minneapolis, the free Chipotle parties, or the Wall Street Journal. He's here because he doesn't have a car.

"I believe this place is good for international students. Since we don't have cars, we don't have a way to buy furniture," Liu says.

There are nearly 7,000 international students at the U, and furnished apartments are a tempting option for kids from abroad. But they also come with luxury rowdiness.

Kiburn Kim, from Korea, pays $850 a month for his two-bedroom in Wahu, where he shares a room in a setup similar to a quad-style dorm room. High rent doesn't make the walls thicker.

"I can hear what they're talking about next door," Kim says. "It feels like I'm living with another person."

He moved out of another place in Wahu because his roommates couldn't keep their partying from stretching into business hours.

Kim's convinced the building's angular design is actually a veil to cram one more bed inside a complex that harbors 850 students.

But that's not what's stressing him out at the moment. He's worried about finding a place to live for two weeks in August when the Wahu boots him out for summer cleaning.

When Kim thought he was signing a 12-month lease to live in Wahu last year, he was actually agreeing to pay 12 installments of rent between September 1 and August 14. That's the fine print that's just a part of the student housing business, says Alicia Meyer, a leasing agent at Wahu.

Though that two-week summer cleaning period inevitably disappoints some of Wahu's international students, Meyer says the Wahu is different from "conventional housing.... In this part of the city, this is how the business is."

Kim intended to sign a 12-month lease to avoid the cost of flying home over the summer. Paying a full month's rent for two weeks of August living leaves him feeling less than luxurious.

"We don't have family to move in with after our contract ends," Kim says. "I've got to pay more money to find another place to live."

FloCo flow

Inside their two-bedroom apartment, Luke Walaszek and Alex Hotz admit that people seem leery when told they live in FloCo Fusion.

"There's this weird stigma around these places," Walaszek says. But FloCo is different, he insists. "They were less interested in gold-plated jacuzzis."

Though the amenities are a plus, he rolls his eyes when building managers send email updates on the status of the tanning bed's repairs.

"A lot of this stuff feels like it's there for image," Walaszek says. "I don't think of FloCo as a community. These guys just know what they're doing, and when there's a problem, it's solved."

FloCo's service is prompt and reliable, one of the reasons Walaszek and Hotz feel comfortable paying $525 a month each to share a bedroom.

"I know we could get a house in Como or Marcy Holmes for a lot cheaper than that, [but] as far as luxury apartments go, that's fairly good. Especially considering that we're right next to campus."

Plus, the staff treats them with respect, a small gesture that goes a long way for Hotz. "I've heard horror stories about landlords," he said. "Knowing what you're getting into is a good thing."

His twin brother, Nick, found his own apartment two floors down.

The Hotz family has three children attending the University of Minnesota, including a daughter who lives in Pioneer Hall, the oldest residence hall. For Alex's dad, Pete, on-campus housing just can't compare with the luxury units.

"Two of my kids have lived in Pioneer, and quite frankly, the place needs to be torn down," Pete Hotz says. "That place is old and it's a dump."

He let his children figure out their own housing situations, a decision that's served his family well.

"When I go to FloCo, I think it's a nice place — I don't have a problem with it, as long as they have an easy way to get to school and a safe walk," Pete Hotz says. In fact, he'd rather let his sons live anywhere except in the dorms, where the U stuffed Alex as the fourth person in a dorm room meant for three.

"When we dropped our son off that first year, the first time away from home... we were disappointed to have to leave him in a situation like that," Pete Hotz says.

Especially when a complex nearby boasts more amenities "than a rock star's tour rider."

Still, Walaszek understands others' skepticism of luxury apartments.

"The weird thing is, from the inside, I feel the same the way," Walaszek says. "Even being inside of it, there's an element of that in my mind as well. Are these guys super out of touch? What's going on when they're offering these eye-rolling amenities?"

Though they live in different buildings, Walaszek's eyeroll is the same as Ghribi's. The building's amenities-heavy advertising lured him in, but the allure of his sleek apartment quickly faded as the bills mounted. At 19, Ghribi finds a sound lesson learned.

"It's been a learning experience. I didn't know anything about apartment living and rent," he says. "I got sucked in here, but it's my fault because I didn't question that grandiose idea of being fancy."