BYU students Tanner and Emma Lowe began looking for an apartment to move into in July 2019. Emma was connected to four Facebook pages for married housing in the Provo/Orem area. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t find anything within their price range.
“We would find a good deal on a house, at a good price, but then it’d be snatched up so fast that we couldn’t get in,” Tanner said. “Even if I saw the posting within an hour,” Emma said.
By late October to early November, they had almost lost hope. Then, they found an ad for a studio apartment on a piece of copy paper taped to a railing outside the Joseph F. Smith Building. The ad said the unit was fully furnished, with a microwave, television and refrigerator for $495 per month. They called the number on the flyer.
The studio turned out to be a motel room in what was formerly a Super 8 on Canyon Road across from the BYU campus. It was fully furnished, with two queen beds, motel art and vending machines down the hall. There was no kitchen and only a mini-fridge. All this was explained to them by their new landlord, Matt Tashjian, over the phone.
When the Lowes called that first week of November, it had only been three or four days since the landlord had begun renting the rooms on a month-to-month basis. They were told there were only 20 rooms left of 99 total.
“It got snatched up so fast ’cause they had it so cheap,” Emma said. At the risk of losing another apartment, they signed a contract to live in the motel.
Living in cramped quarters hasn’t been easy for the Lowes.
“The dishes situation can be a little bit annoying just ’cause there’s no kitchen sink,” Emma said. “We’ve just been doing that in a tub.”
Canyon Road’s Super 8 closed permanently as a motel in October 2019. It was subsequently purchased by a company called Marvin Gardens and advertised as studio apartments for married housing on Facebook. Marvin Gardens also has a website to market the space and filter new applications. There is also a portal for renters to pay their rent online, but for now, occupants are paying Tashjian over Venmo.
Long-term rental arrangements in motels violate Provo City zoning codes. A stay longer than 30 days is considered long-term. Hotels and motels are defined by having more than 10 rooms for rent, which are rented more than once within a thirty day period. Rooms like the Lowes’ have been occupied for longer than 30 days.
The building’s new management apparently gets around the city’s zoning laws by giving its occupants contracts that are signed every 30 days. This gives the appearance of multiple rentals per month, but in reality, it’s the same occupants living in the same unit every month. The contract title reads, “Hotel Guest Contract Agreement,” but on the same contract there are terms written in to hold the unit through to the end of the next month.
Rental licenses are available from the city for long-term rental dwellings, but as of January 2020 no rental license was filed with Provo City under the address of the motel or under the name of the new owner. Provo City recorder Amanda Erchanbrack revealed this after The Universe filed a GRAMA request seeking a copy of the rental license.
A typical motel room would likely meet Provo City’s health and safety standards. According to Provo City Code, there is actually nothing that requires kitchens in rental dwellings. Health and safety standards include structural integrity and smoke alarms. Minimum bedroom floor area is 70 square feet, and the motel rooms being rented to students are more than 300 square feet.
It’s the motel’s zoning that prevents it from becoming a legal apartment complex. According to Provo City Code, the corner of Canyon Road and University Parkway is zoned as a general commercial zone, which does not allow for residential apartment complexes.
Provo Zoning Administrator Carrie Walls said new ownership has meant increased vigilance. She remembers it as a high crime area. “It’s been like that for decades,” she said. According to the Lowes, the new management is combating this with a strict code of conduct. They heard rumors that one resident has already been kicked out for smoking pot. The rental contract makes it clear that management implements a zero-tolerance policy. Since moving in, Tanner said he saw some kids breaking into the vending machine.
The Lowes said there is simply not enough flexible, inexpensive housing for married college students in Provo or within a reasonable distance of BYU.
“You can’t do anything about it because there are no other options. So that’s why we’re here, because it was cheaper and we’re going to deal with the not-so-great things about it,” Emma said. They hope to get into Wymount Terrace, one of BYU’s married student housing complexes, after winter semester.
It appears that the motel owners plan to continue to rent rooms month-to-month in the future. The owner and management told occupants that they plan to renovate each room and add kitchenettes this summer.
The Daily Universe contacted the property owner and left a voicemail seeking a comment. The owner returned the call, expressed his displeasure with the reporter’s inquiry, and said his comments would be off the record.