By Robert Palazzolo
It is a common phenomenon for Fordham students. A few weeks after turning in their keys, walking out the door of their residential hall, getting in their parents car and driving home for a long summer of barbecues and sunburns, they see an email pop up in their inbox with the subject line “Damage Billing Status.”
When they open the email, the bewildered students find what can be a substantial bill—maybe even hundreds of dollars.
Blake Christy, FCRH ’17, was one of those students this summer. This was the damage report he received:
“Room Damages Found: Command hook on inside of door; wire hook in wall three; three wire hooks in wall 4; blue stick tack residue on wall 4; two small holes in wall four.
Room Damage Charges: $125.
Christy said he was not pleased to read this email and he felt a $125 dollar fine was out of proportion with the damage inflicted. But more than anything, he felt confused.
“I think the student body feels out of the loop when it comes to how the administration charges residents,” Christy said.
Megan Czachor, FCRH ’18, shared a similar experience. She was billed $50 for two paint chips in her freshman dorm.
“I thought the damage fees were a little excessive. I specifically thought this because the room was not in great condition when we moved in, and the paint chips that did occur from myself were no bigger than the size of a quarter,” said Czachor.
In the standard damage billing email, a postscript the end of the message lists the reasoning for damage fees.
“Furthermore, rooms need to be repaired and unclean conditions rectified in order to ensure Fordham is maintaining a healthy, safe and enjoyable environment for its residents. Damages that residents are fined for are outside of the scope of normal wear and tear and are not included in a resident’s room and board charges. For this reason we must collect fines for damages to offset the cost of maintaining satisfactory residence halls.”
Barbara Almeida, graduate assistant for Damage Billing, said that there are many factors that go into the pricing of damage fees, more than simply applying spackle to a dinged wall. To use the example of Czachor’s fee — which would be classified as a $50 “Wall Mark” in the standard billing system — Almeida said that dollar amount represents more than just the amount of paint needed to cover the quarter-sized mark.
“It’s a combo of Facilities, Housing Ops and that’s the number they came up with, given the time for turn-arounds. A lot of the times they have to go hire people to paint, because the turn-around for rooms has to be so quick,” Almeida said.
Justin Muzzi, assistant director of Residential Life for Leadership, Development and Training, elaborated.
“Painters, carpenters and tradespeople — all of those people are parts of unions, so I think there are those fees, and I think the prices are as fair as they can be for the people that do have to do it, as well as the supplies.”
“Unfortunately that’s not just a housing decision [what the fines should be] — it’s a larger decision, and it comes from facilities, campus operations and housing operations. We try to make it so it is fair, and so that the university is not losing money when we have to repaint or buy furniture again,” said Muzzi.
But some students argue that their less-than-stellar room condition upon moving in make it seem less reasonable to pay for hefty repair fees. Czachor said she was unimpressed with the condition of her dorm when she moved in.
“If the room was in prime condition when we moved in, I would be more understanding of the prices. For what we already pay for room and board, I do not think it should cost $50 to touch up two small paint clips,” Czachor said.
That leads to the question: Where is the damage fee money going?
Muzzi said the sheer quantity of repairs needed, and the time needed to make said repairs, necessitates a rotating schedule of dorm rehabilitation. He said outside of major repairs (for example, a baseball-sized hole in the wall) it would be a sheer impossibility to do the touch-ups to all 13 residence halls each summer.
“So your $50 this year might not be used to repaint your entire wall, but in the year when they decide to repaint all of that, that 50 dollars is going to be used,” said Muzzi.
So, according to Muzzi, the damage fee money charged corresponds to the cost of repairing said damage, and will always go towards that function — even if it is not always immediate. This delay would help explain why some students feel that their fees are not actually paying for the stated repairs, because it may take while for the money collected on damage fees to be spent for that purpose.
Almeida acknowledged that, as Christy expressed, many students are unaware of how the system works. She said she believes this confusion is what is driving much of the anger — and that she would like to clear it up.
“I don’t think students are so much upset about the charges, rather, they are upset that they don’t understand the process…they just want to know,” said Almeida.
“So a part of my goal moving forward is what we can do to better communicate to them,” she added.
Almeida, who is responsible for judging damage fee appeals, also encouraged students who feel wronged by the system to file an appeal and explain why. She said this past summer, a large portion of the appeals went through successfully, and many charges were subsequently dropped or decreased. Almeida said they give students the benefit of the doubt on damage appeals — if she cannot find explicit, photographic proof that the damage is exactly as indicated on the damage report, she said she drops the fine. She and Muzzi also said they encourage students to do regular checkout rather than express, in order to try to ensure accurate damage reports.
Almeida said, above all, she does not want Fordham students to think that no one is listening to their frustrations.
“I think it’s important to know, that there is a person behind the appeal, that you are writing, a lot of people forget that I am human, I can be understanding, and I try to, because that is part of the process.”