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Tufts students evicted from ZBT house after Walnut Hill repeatedly failed to make repairs

The Tufts Daily
Mold is pictured growing on the ceiling of the ZBT fraternity’s common room on April 25, 2021.Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily

By Chloe Courtney Bohl

In April, the three residents of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house were told to move out due to maintenance issues that began in September 2020 and that Walnut Hill, a Tufts real estate subsidiary, repeatedly failed to resolve. 

Omar Badr, the RA for the ZBT house, explained that the maintenance problems began early in the fall semester. Each time a resident would take a shower, water droplets would leak down from the ceiling of the house’s common area. After the leak began, the residents noticed that area of the ceiling turning yellow in color and developing cracks in the sheetrock.

Badr contacted Walnut Hill, the Tufts subsidiary responsible for maintaining the ZBT house, shortly after he noticed the leaks and discoloration in the ceiling. According to Badr, they said they would send someone to look at the ceiling that week, but no one came.

Weeks later, the leak had not gone away and the ceiling had begun to bulge. Badr explained that he was first able to successfully make contact with Walnut Hill in early November, when he reached them through the Tufts University Police Department.

“On Sunday, the bulge [was] just hanging from the ceiling, and it [was] about to fall probably within the next hour or so,” Badr, a senior, said. “And I … tried calling [Walnut Hill], that didn’t work. I called TUPD, and they managed to get me on the phone with someone. And when I finally did get on the phone, they’re like, ‘Yes, we’re aware. It should hold, it’ll be fine. We’ll get it first thing Monday morning.’ And then as soon as I hung up that call, maybe 10 minutes later, the ceiling crashed.”

The residents of the ZBT house temporarily relocated to Lewis Hall so that Walnut Hill could assess and repair the damage. 

Robert Chihade, Tufts director of real estate, said that during that time, a contractor identified the shower as the source of the leak and restored the sheetrock and paint on the ceiling. 

“The plumber did not find any damage to or leaks in the pipes above, and the contractor did not identify any structural damage,” Chihade wrote in an email to the Daily.

The leaking resumed just days after Badr and the other residents returned to the ZBT house. According to Badr, the deterioration of the ceiling progressed more quickly this time, to the point where he called Walnut Hill and told them he thought it was about to fall again.

“This is just a cycle of them ignoring me and not being responsive and then things escalating, and [then] they look at it,” Badr said. “The second time, it [didn’t] fall but it [was] very close … they [came to] fix it at the very last second. And it [happened] a third time, after they fixed it again. So I was told that the plan was that they were going to do renovations … over winter break, and that … there should be no more issues.”

Chihade said that over winter break, Walnut Hill came to the ZBT house to “caulk, tile and secure the areas around the shower and install a sliding shower door in order to prevent water escaping into the walls or onto the bathroom floor.” 

He added that since the November repairs to the common room ceiling, further damage occurred to the area. However, Walnut Hill deliberately did not repair it. 

“Additional water collected in the ceiling, causing additional damage to the ceiling in the living room — some small amounts of water came through as well as paint and sheetrock,” Chihade said. “This area was deliberately not repaired in January 2021 so that the contractor could monitor the activity and determine if any additional water was coming through after the bathroom repairs were made.”

At the time, Badr was not aware that Walnut Hill had deliberately not repaired the common room ceiling. 

In a follow-up email to the Daily, Badr explained his understanding of the situation.

“I was told by my boss and the head of ResLife that they would be ‘completing renovations’ over winter break and that the issue should be fully fixed when we [came] back in February,” Badr said. “I was not aware nor do I think my boss was that they deliberately didn’t make repairs.”

After winter break, the ceiling was still leaking when the residents took showers. The sheetrock began cracking again, and mold began to grow on the exposed wood planks where the sheetrock had peeled away.

Over the course of the fall and spring semesters, Josh Hartman, director of the Office of Residential Life and Learning, said he reached out to the residents multiple times, offering to move them out of the ZBT house. 

Despite the continued problems, Badr did not want to move out because the house offered him a level of safety as an immunocompromised student. In the house, he could minimize his close contacts and cook his own food rather than going to the dining halls.

“I chose to live in this house to avoid as [many] people as possible,” Badr said. “It’s very easy to do that because I only have two residents, and they’ve both already had COVID so they aren’t able to catch it again for the rest of the semester.”

Ultimately, the ORLL contacted the three residents of the ZBT house and gave them two weeks’ notice to move out by April 25. 

Badr emphasized that he did not want to leave the ZBT house and was surprised when he received the move-out notice from the ORLL. He had understood that the ORLL’s lack of communication had signaled their willingness to remain in the house until the end of the semester.

“They were cool with that until they weren’t,” Badr said. 

Dan Gizzo, another resident of the ZBT house, agreed with Badr that he would have preferred to stay in the house for the remaining weeks of the semester.

“I was hoping that we could just stick it out,” Gizzo, a junior, said. “I mean, this has been going on literally since the first shower this semester … so yeah, if it had been up to me, [we would have stayed] there for two more weeks.”

Badr described the moving process as rushed and stressful. 

“I was very focused on getting my residents out … and organizing our house items because I didn’t know if we’d have access to the house or not again,” Badr said. “And if we don’t pack all of the house items like the projector, TV, gaming console, composites, kitchen appliances, things like that, they can get thrown away by Walnut Hill when they do renovation this summer, so [I was] just scrambling to make sure our residents are moved out, that everything’s put away, and we don’t lose anything valuable.”

The residents ended up moving to their new housing — an off-campus apartment — without university assistance because the ORLL was unable to offer them moving assistance on days that worked for them.

“The students asked for moving assistance on the weekend. We could not accommodate the request for weekend assistance due to unavailability of movers during those times,” Hartman said. “The students were told that they would have access to the house to retrieve any items that were left behind, and that access could be easily coordinated through the Office of Residential Life and Learning.”

According to Badr, this was not clearly communicated to him at the time.

“When I asked, initially, if we were going to have access in the house, I was told by the head of ResLife that they don’t know; it’s up to Walnut Hill if they changed the locks or not,” Badr said.

Badr says Walnut Hill repeatedly failed to communicate with him over the past two semesters. They were unresponsive when Badr first reached out about the leak. Chihade told the Daily that a Walnut Hill contractor checked in weekly this semester to monitor the leak, but Badr disputes this. 

“The contractor has investigated weekly since January, and no additional water has collected in the ceiling assembly, indicating that the bathroom repairs were successful,” Chihade said.

Badr said this was untrue. 

“Some guy came in once in a while … I study in our common area where the leaking happens, and barely leave the house as-is. I can tell you I’ve seen that man roughly 3 times this semester,” Badr said. “If he was coming in weekly … I would be aware of it.”

Badr reflected on the stress and responsibility placed on him as an RA during this process.

“Some of the issues that we’ve had at this house this year, I feel like, are … out of my jurisdiction and [outside] the qualifications for this job,” he said. “I’m just a college student … I don’t know how to deal with continuous housing issues and unresponsive landlords.”

He also commented on how it affected him in a larger sense.

“It really affected me academically as well,” Badr said. “I had to withdraw from a class because I just couldn’t keep up with figuring out all these housing issues and focusing on my classes at the same time — it just became way too much.”

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