Maowei Hu first met her former landlords at their restaurant in the Cache Valley Mall shortly after she arrived in Logan to begin studying at Utah State University last August. She was hungry after a long day of travel, so the couple gave her a free meal.
While she ate, Hu said her landlords, Guohui Li and Hongli Xiu, connected with her over the fact that all three of them were from China. Hu appreciated their hospitality and told them how grateful she was. It was evident they were trying to be kind.
After she ate, she asked to go to the house so she could see the room she was planning on renting before she signed the contract. Hu said they obliged but required her to sign the agreement before she could look around the place
“The only thing I wanted to do was go to bed and go to sleep,” Hu said.
During her first few days in their home, Li and Xiu continued to be kind to Hu, but she said it didn’t last long.
Li and Xiu, who were living in the basement, would check in on her and her roommates almost every day without advance notice, according to Hu. She said they began forbidding her to do things, like use the air conditioning, the heater and the kitchen.
Other times, Hu said the couple would pound on her door and yell at her. One night while Hu was showering, she said Xiu knocked on the door for such a long time Hu finally got out and wrapped a towel around herself to see what was happening.
To her embarrassment, both Xiu and Li were there. Hu said that while she stood with her hair dripping wet, the couple yelled at her for half an hour.
Hu isn’t the only one of Li and Xiu’s former tenants with complaints. Three other students, including Liping Zhang and Zhaou Ming, who have lived in the home between 2017 and now, said they also experienced privacy violations and restrictions that kept them from using the heating and cooling. All of them, including Hu, said they were not given their security deposit after moving out, despite repeated requests.
The students said they believe their landlords are specifically targeting foreign students because they’re likely to be unfamiliar with typical rental situations in the United States.
Because of the unreturned deposits, the group is suing Li and Xiu in small claims court. However, they said it isn’t about the money. Their hope is that by bringing attention to their experience they can prevent other students from ending up in similar situations.
The Herald Journal stopped by Li and Xiu’s restaurant twice to request comment, however, the couple declined.
According to the Utah State Code, landlords are required to ensure that their units are “fit for human habitation.” This includes providing operable heating and keeping any air conditioning units in working condition.
The state code also requires landlords to give their tenants at least 24 hours notice before entering the resident’s unit. When landlords are making rental agreements with new tenants, the law requires they allow them to walk through the apartment and take inventory of the apartment’s condition.
Barriers to entry
Issues with rental situations aren’t unique to Chinese students. Amanda Castillo works in the office for Global Engagement at USU and said she has seen other international students run into a variety of problems when they try to rent in the United States.
These issues may be that the students don’t have a Social Security number to put on their rental application or that they are unfamiliar with the valley and its transportation system so they don’t end up living as close as they wanted to campus.
Castillo said she and her office are happy to answer questions for students as they navigate the process, however, because students are usually unfamiliar with what to expect when renting in the United States, they don’t always know what questions to ask.
Since the Office of Global Engagement is a part of USU, Castillo said they only promote campus housing, but they will refer students to common sites for off-campus listings if they ask about that option.
“We encourage on-campus housing because of a lot of those other issues,” Castillo said.
When international students are accepted to Utah State, Castillo said her office sends them a welcome package with the next steps they need to take. The package includes a page on housing which outlines the options for on-campus housing and includes a few paragraphs about what to expect if they rent off-campus housing.
Although Castillo said she does hear stories from students who have problems with their landlord, she said it is more common to hear from landlords who are having issues such as students not paying bills.
She said the goal of her office is to educate both tenants and landlords to ensure people will be willing to continue to welcome international students to the valley.
Castillo also said the most powerful tool for preventing tenants from being abused is for students to speak up within their communities and warn their peers of problematic situations.
When it comes to this situation, the abuses the students have described aren’t the only issue. According to Logan municipal code, Li and Xiu should not have been renting to as many people as the students said were in the home.
With the exception of the campus residential zone which allows for up to six unrelated adults to live in one unit, most of the zoning throughout Logan’s neighborhoods limits occupancy to one family or three unrelated adults.
According to the students, there were a total of seven people in the home, including both Li, Xiu, their son and four tenants.
In mid-August, the former tenants reported the situation to the Logan Police Department. Shortly after that, a violation notice was sent to Xiu, stating that they needed to comply with the occupancy requirements by Sept. 1. The Herald Journal was unable to confirm whether or not anyone is still renting at the property.
This was not the first time the tenants tried to report their situation. One of the plaintiffs in the case said she filed a complaint on the police department’s website but was never able to connect with someone.
Hu said they also told the Office of Global Engagement about the situation a few times and that a home visit was conducted, but the son of the landlords painted his parents as the victims and no actions were taken.
All of the students involved in the small claims suit have since moved out of the house. Most of them moved out before their contract ended because of the stress they said living in the house cause them. Hu said the last straw for her was the rumors the family was trying to spread in an attempt to ruin her reputation.
Of these four students, only one of them stayed until the end of the contract.
In addition to the unreturned deposits, some of the tenants said the landlords also owe them rent because they moved out early. Their contract does state that there will be a penalty for moving out early, however, one of the plaintiffs said she had been told if she didn’t like living there, she could move out at any time and get her money back. She did, but never received the money.
The students aren’t sure what the outcome of their suit will be, but if others are safer because they shared their story, that is enough for them.
“We want people to know this,” Hu said. “Even if we cannot get the money.”