Georgia student housing vendor cut back on maintenance services, records show

Work done by private company in dorms on nine campuses did not meet COVID requirements
Piedmont Central, a 1,152-bed residential hall on Georgia State University's campus, was built through a public-private partnership with Corvias, a Rhode Island-based company. ERIC STIRGUS/ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Piedmont Central, a 1,152-bed residential hall on Georgia State University's campus, was built through a public-private partnership with Corvias, a Rhode Island-based company. ERIC STIRGUS/ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM.

A private student housing vendor neglected to perform maintenance at housing facilities at several public universities in Georgia, forcing state officials to come up with a plan to meet federal COVID-19 safety guidelines, according to documents released by a union of Georgia university employees.

The United Campus Workers of Georgia, which represents the interests of all public university employees, say their findings, which they discussed Wednesday with reporters, expose the pitfalls of public-private partnerships and the need for the University System of Georgia to create additional safeguards to better protect students and workers. The group also wants the system to discontinue any similar privatization deals.

The documents, obtained by the union through an open records request, show University System officials said the vendor, Corvias, would not be able to afford to provide cleaning protocols recommended by state and federal health officials and planned to cut its operating budget by 24% for the current school year. Georgia State University, for example, estimated it would cost nearly $100,000 to pay for additional maintenance services that were supposed to be done by Corvias, according to one document.

Corvias did not respond to several requests for comment in recent days. The Rhode Island-based company, which manages student and military housing in several other states, did not reply to messages and calls for comment last year for a prior article about whether the company pushed Georgia university officials to reopen dorms at full capacity early on during the pandemic.

“This scheme has highlighted the dangers of privatization of public goods,” the workers union wrote in a summary of its findings. “By contracting out dorm ownership and operations to a private company for a 65-year deal, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents have put the well-being of students and workers in the hands of a private, for-profit enterprise. The students and workers of the University System of Georgia deserve to live and work in buildings administered by public officials for whom the public good is the highest priority.”

University of North Georgia graduate student Richelle Brown, a UCWGA member, said she hopes other colleges and universities see the potential problems of these partnerships.

“It puts public money at risk,” Brown said in a telephone interview.

Richelle Brown is a graduate student at the University of North Georgia. PHOTO CREDIT: UNITED CAMPUS WORKERS OF GEORGIA.

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University System officials released a statement in a response to questions, such as how much were the additional maintenance costs, that said: “USG and its student housing partner Corvias are in constant communication to ensure that USG students’ housing experiences are as contracted for in the partnership agreements.”

Georgia’s Board of Regents approved a 65-year arrangement with Corvias in November 2014 to manage student housing at several of its schools. The University System would still own the buildings and land, while Corvias operates the dorms and collects rent. Corvias receives a tax exemption for operating the student housing, approved through a 2014 voter referendum.

The documents show the company was concerned about beds going unused during the early days of the pandemic, which union officials believe was steered by profits. In March 2020, the company proposed one deal that the union said was fueled by Corvias’ desire to gain access to a $9.2 million management incentive fee. That May, a Corvias official wrote the University System urging them not to set limits on how many students could live in some campus housing, angering many students, parents and faculty members.

Corvias, which describes itself as a “relatively small private company” in one letter, let go some employees who worked at Georgia campuses, union leaders said.

The company had 57 of its own employees who provided various services in Georgia, but wanted to reduce their staff to nine workers for all nine campuses where it operates dorms, according to one document.

System official Tracey Cook wrote the company in August, noting the proposed staff reductions caused “undue concern as these institutions gear up for the return of students to campus.” School employees on some of the campuses where dorms are operated by Corvias reported rooms that hadn’t been cleaned by the company, others in need of paint and air filters that needed to be replaced.

All 26 colleges and universities in the system reopened their campuses, with limited housing accommodations in August.

The situation in Georgia and complaints about Corvias elsewhere prompted U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, to conduct an inquiry into the company. Warren introduced legislation in 2019 to ensure private contractors provide quality military housing after news reports raised concerns about Corvias’ management of some properties.

The company wrote a letter to the senator in late August that said its communications with University System officials were based on federal health guidelines at the time and denied attempting to pressure anyone.

Union leaders say they are discussing their findings with groups on college campuses in other states to avoid similar situations.

“This is not simply a USG-Corvias thing,” said member Bryant Barnes.