The University of Michigan announced its hybrid plan for the fall semester in late June, allowing dorms to reopen and remaining flexible to students who do not want to return to campus. However, community members have raised questions about off-campus housing and what students are able to do about leases if they do not plan to return to campus in the fall.
Oxford Companies Associate Director Katie Vohwinkle told The Daily in an interview that they are working with students who signed a lease, but decided to not return to campus amid COVID-19.
“We have been in touch with the property owners, and every situation is a little bit different. But anyone that has come to us so far and expressed a need to get out of their lease, we are assisting them and trying to help them find someone to take over their lease,” Vohwinkle said. “In years past, there have been fees associated with that, us marketing for them, but we (are) not charging (now) and we have been very successful in finding people to take over leases, (but) they are still responsible for the lease.”
Many universities, including Harvard University and the California State University system, have announced plans to go entirely remote for the fall semester. Vohwinkle said if the University were to follow suit, they would have a different approach to the decision about their leases.
“We would look at the situation differently if that were to happen,” Vohwinkle said. “We would reach out to the individual owner about how to handle each individual property. But, they all do have leases (and) so far, we have been fortunate and we have been able to help every single person in that situation. We do not have a clause in our leases to break the lease… The students are on a 12-month lease, these are not academically driven (schedules).”
LSA junior Avaneesh Reddy told The Daily in an email he signed a lease last December and is struggling to find a way to release his commitment to living in the apartment due to the pandemic.
“I signed my lease back in December at Landmark, as apartments were pretty much running out for next year,” Reddy said. “It seems like there’s no way to break the lease. I’ve spoken to the management and explained the situation that I shall not be returning to campus during the next semester, but they were pretty nonchalant and dismissive of the financial strain that it might put to continue holding such unoccupied space for most families.”
As an international student, Reddy said that the subletting process is complicated and these roadblocks have made a challenging situation more difficult to navigate since it is harder for him to return to the U.S.
“Landmark has made things worse by preventing subleasing and only allowing reletting of the entire lease,” Reddy said. “Since almost no one is looking to take up a 12 month lease now, it seems I have no legal way to sublease my apartment. As an international student who travelled back to India due to the pandemic, I can say with confidence that I’ll be staying back and completing the semester online. I’m also considering taking a gap semester, but there’s a lot to be considered, and having a huge housing debt is not making things easier.”
Landmark declined to comment on their leasing and reletting policies. The Daily also reached out to Arbor Blu, The Hub – Ann Arbor, and University Towers, all of which declined to comment.
LSA junior Deedy Chang talked to The Daily about her experience working to sublease her room in a house for the upcoming school year.
“I am currently trying to find someone to take over my lease. If it doesn’t work I’ll probably switch to subletting,” Chang said. “I contacted my landlord when I found out that I might not return to campus or I might want to look for a space with less people because I live in a house of seven.”
Chang said while their landlord has reduced rent during the summer, some of her house members are unsure if it is enough.
“We reached out as a house to our landlord, closer to when the pandemic started, to talk about rent reductions,” Chang said. “Everyone is going through a tough situation right now so it’s not like we expected something huge from them, but he was really cooperative and he did give us a rent reduction through the end of August and was really nice about it. (However) some of us were not sure if he reduced it enough or if it was fair to keep paying rent at the price he reduced it to (this) summer.”
Chang also emphasized the challenges presented by students signing leases so early into the school year.
“There are obviously a lot of people who are looking for month-by-month leases because there is so much uncertainty,” Chang said. “I signed (the lease) last fall (and) it’s been tough because I don’t know if there could be anything done about it as a lot of it is facilitated by students themselves, it’s just a cycle that repeats itself. It’s kind of frustrating that we have to sign our leases so early.”
Recently, the city council of Berkley, Calif., home to the University of California-Berkeley, passed an amendment to allow tenants to end leases due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an article published by The Daily Californian, reporter Veronica Roseborough wrote the amendment was intended to help clarify how tenants could end their leases.
“City Council passed a new section of the municipal code in April, intended to protect tenants in Berkeley from ‘exploitative lease terms,’ including exit fees that could arise if they attempt to terminate their lease before its expiration,” Roseborough wrote. “According to Council member and author of the amendment Kate Harrison, the April ordinance was misinterpreted by some. It was not meant to hinder preexisting early termination options between tenant and landlord, even if they involve a fee, Harrison said.”
Similarly to the University of Michigan, Berkeley announced in June their plans for an in-residence, hybrid fall semester. But recently, Berkeley announced the beginning of the fall semester will be fully remote due to a spike in cases. This new guidance from city council has been well-received from Berkeley students, with one calling it a “saving grace” in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Chang acknowledged the changes made at Berkeley and said while they could be problematic for leasing companies and individuals, these changes would be greatly appreciated by students.
“As a student who is trying to get rid of their lease it would be great,” Chang said. “I don’t know how much damage that would cause to the leasing companies and independent landlords like my own. If we do think about it on that sort of level, there are not just big companies out there owning these houses (but) also couples and families that rely on income from the rent. If it doesn’t kill me to keep paying rent and it’s going to help someone else out, I’m probably willing to do that but I think it would be nice to be able to terminate my lease.”
Reddy also commented on the Berkeley regulations and said Ann Arbor should consider something similar for students.
“Ann Arbor is already one of the most expensive college towns to live in the US, mostly due to housing prices,” Reddy said. “And not aiding their largest demographic, the student populace, seems counterintuitive.”
Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org