Stuck With Off-Campus Housing

Students say they need rent relief from off-campus housing providers refusing to release them from leases during the coronavirus pandemic.

May 1, 2020
 
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After the University of California, Irvine, announced it would close because of the coronavirus pandemic, Summer Joy Pagaduan lost her campus job as a barista and decided to move out of her off-campus apartment and return home. She quickly learned it would cost her more than $1,000 -- and a combined $8,000 for her and four roommates -- to terminate the lease.

“How am I going to possibly afford this,” Pagaduan, a fourth-year nursing student, said in a letter sent by student advocacy organizations to California governor Gavin Newsom, requesting an executive order to provide students living off-campus with relief from leases without financial penalty.

“It's unfair that students in UCI on-campus housing were able to cancel their housing plans with absolutely no financial penalties, but UCI students living in off-campus housing have to worry about these insanely high lease termination costs,” Pagaduan said in the letter.

While Pagaduan said she reached an agreement with her landlord to terminate the lease, many students across the country remain stuck in rental leases with owners or managers of off-campus housing that the students no longer occupy. Unlike students who lived in college-owned residence halls and have received or demanded room and board refunds after evacuating their campuses, students who lived in housing owned or managed by private landlords and rental companies say landlords are requiring them to continue paying rent for unoccupied apartments.

Private property owners aren’t obligated to let students out of their leases, said Amy Groff, senior vice president of operations for the National Apartment Association, or NAA, which represents owners, including those that manage off-campus residences. Private facilities operate independently from colleges and universities and even at times when students may not be living near campus during semester breaks, they typically have yearlong leases, Groff said.

“Some students will be facing some hardships because they were asked to go home and do their online classes,” Groff said. “They’re still financially obligated to pay that rent even if they’re not living there … I definitely sympathize with them. I have a child at a university where I’m paying for their rent.”

Felix Nemirovsky, whose daughter is a freshman at the University of Colorado, Denver, said his attempts to terminate his daughter’s lease agreement have been unsuccessful.

The lease with CoLab, an off-campus apartment complex managed by the collegiate housing provider Greystar, legally obligates Nemirovsky’s daughter to pay $945 each month until the end of July, unless she finds someone else to take over the lease, he said. But a lease takeover is unrealistic, given that the CU Denver campus remains closed and that classes will continue to take place online for both the remainder of spring and summer semesters, Nemirovsky said.

CoLab is offering families “flexible payment options” and will not punish tenants for unpaid rent by waiving late fees and not reporting delinquencies, a representative for the apartment complex said in an emailed statement.

“We understand the challenges many of our residents are facing due to the COVID-19 situation,” the statement said. “For those who have been directly impacted, we are being as flexible as we can, working with residents who are experiencing financial hardship.”

Nemirovsky said he and other CU Denver parents whose children live in CoLab, which is listed on a CU Denver website for off-campus housing, believe CoLab should come up with “a fair assessment” for a lease termination fee that students could pay.

“If you look at this from a perspective of fairness … we’re talking about students who worked at cafes, versus multimillion-dollar corporations,” Nemirovsky said. “My daughter did nothing wrong. She was intending to pay the rent throughout the rest of the year. The idea that she had to move out, that’s not her fault, either. The state should compensate CoLab, or CoLab should do this in the interest of their future tenants.”

CoLab said it is abiding by state and federal moratoriums on evictions, which Groff said vary by jurisdiction. Colorado has not mandated protection for renters as other states have, NBC News reported. An executive order issued in March by Governor Jared Polis “directs agencies to explore and encourage prevention of foreclosures and evictions, and requests landlords not to impose fees, and banks to halt foreclosures,” according to a proclamation from the Denver City Council.

There is also a federal moratorium preventing evictions and allowing forbearance of mortgage payments through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act for certain landlords with federally backed loans. But only about one-third of all apartment loans are backed by the government. Other rental owners have to work with private lenders on forbearance, Todd Usher, manager of public relations for the NAA, said in an email.

Nemirovsky said eviction protections do not address the unique situation of student renters who moved out of apartments near their campuses or lost jobs on or off campus.

“The idea that the students’ situation is different than the typical renter is totally ignored,” Nemirovsky said.

Nemirovsky said colleges and universities are also “morally responsible” for helping families having difficulties getting out of leases. He said his daughter chose CoLab because it was listed on the CU Denver website.

Sarah Erickson, public relations manager for CU Denver, said it provides listings “as a service to our students … but none of these organizations has an official relationship or partnership with the university.” There is a disclaimer on the website that states the university does not endorse or recommend any of the listed housing options.

Colleges rarely have any financial stake in off-campus properties and therefore can’t tell owners how to operate, said Von Stange, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International and assistant vice president of student life at the University of Iowa. In a majority of cases, it’s the student’s choice whether they live on or off campus, Stange said.

“Residence halls were closed to support students during this time. They had to move out,” he said. “The off-campus market, there’s certainly no obligation to move out at this time.”

The various stay-at-home orders issued by states created anxiety among students and their parents, who believe it's safest to be away from campus, Stange said. That belief was reinforced as the coronavirus began spreading and the deadly threat it posed became more widely known. Students also had no sense of how long the campus closures would last and whether they would be safe in their apartments over the long term. Those who lost jobs or whose parents lost jobs also knew they could not afford to stay in the apartments.

Students’ “natural inclination” is to go home under such circumstances, said Kristin McGuire, Western regional director for Young Invincibles, a group that advocates for youth political and economic empowerment. McGuire, along with a number of higher education and advocacy groups, sent the letter to Newsom on April 21 requesting lease relief for student renters. A majority of students in the California State University and University of California systems live off campus, the letter said.

“Their campuses are closed, they have lost on- or near-campus jobs, and are separated from their families,” the letter said. “By no fault of their own, many off-campus students have suddenly become unable to continue with their current lease. Because of this, many students have been forced to abandon apartments in an effort to shelter in place with parents.”

The consequences of students failing to make rent payments could be “devastating,” including by damaging their credit, which could then hurt their ability to get jobs or loans in the future, McGuire said. She also questioned why students, especially first-generation and low-income students, who do not have a safety net to fall back on, should bear this burden of the pandemic’s economic consequences.

“We cut them off from all their ability to make money, but we’re holding them to the off-campus ecosphere of housing,” McGuire said. “We can’t take away where they make money and uphold where they spend money.”

Groff noted that students are not the only ones whose income has been threatened by the pandemic -- property owners have already seen a decrease in April rent payments, and “it’s just going to get worse,” she said.

“Each owner and operator is taking a hard look at what they can do to mitigate rent loss,” Groff said. “I know many that have tried to work closely with students that are having a hard time paying their rent.”

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