Subletting during a pandemic: not so simple

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 12:17pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

When I decided to live at home this fall, I did so promising my parents that I wouldn’t be staying home for more than one semester. “It’s just for COVID safety,” I told them. “I just don’t think a co-op is safe right now. If things aren’t better by next semester, I’ll get a sublease.”

I had assumed, somewhat foolishly, that a winter sublease would be something I could easily get. I’ve subleased rooms twice before, once the summer after my freshman year and a second time this past winter, after returning from a semester abroad. Both times, it had been a relatively simple process to find a room that met my basic living standards and my budget. The summer and winter housing markets can often be oversaturated, which makes it easy for sublessor to get good prices.

I assumed then that the COVID-19 market would be even more friendly to renters. Surely, I thought, at a time when so many people are staying home with parents or moving off-campus, there’ll be something that meets my budget.

In fact, there are plenty of places that meet my budget — I see them every day in the graduating classes’ Facebook groups, cheap singles in six-bedroom townhouses or shared rooms in North Campus apartments. But what I hadn’t thought of before, and what has become the real problem for me, is finding COVID-safe housing. As I search for winter housing, I’m realizing it’s essentially impossible for me to rent housing that is both affordable and safe.

There is some inherent risk to subleasing even outside of a pandemic. Often, sublessees only see an apartment once, if at all, before signing papers to lease it. In this way, subleasing can kind of be a roll of the dice. Maybe your roommates will be as nice as they seemed when you met them and maybe this will be a good, quiet, clean place to live — or maybe they’ll be loud night owls who haven’t cleaned a dish in three months. Either way, you can’t know for sure until after you move in.

This was a frustrating occurrence pre-COVID, but, for most people, not especially dangerous for their health. Now, though, there’s a new, immediate air of danger for almost all sublessees. Even though many college students are obeying social distancing policies, others are not, and it’s impossible to say for sure which type of person your future roommates will be. You have to size up each potential group of roommates and ask yourself: Are you risking getting sick just by moving in?

In a phone interview, LSA senior Maddie Thompson, commented on her own experience finding a sublet for the fall semester. 

“I was definitely worried,” Thompson said. “You know, I communicated with the person I’m subletting the room from as well as one of the other roommates here, and they both kind of seemed reassuring to me that, you know, they were keeping safe and the other roommates were keeping safe, and they’d established rules about visiting and partying, but I was wary.”

This uncertainty goes both ways. Sublessors, as well as sublessees, have to be concerned about the habits of their potential tenants. Often, they are subletting a room in a house where multiple people already live, and in many sublease agreements, those people need to sign off on a subleassee before they can move in.

School of Kinesiology junior Amanda Murray said that finding a subleassee who would obey her and her roommates’ COVID-19 policies was a concern in her search. 

“Before we finalized the contracts and stuff with the subleases ... we did a Zoom call with the two roommates that are originally on the lease and going to stay there and kind of confirmed COVID house rules,” Murray said. “And so, we made sure they were going to comply with washing their hands … and they (would be) really careful about who they let into the apartment at all.”

The most obvious solution to this problem, at least for subleassees, is to seek out sublets in places without roommates. But being able to do so, of course, takes privilege. One-bedroom apartments and lofts in Ann Arbor regularly cost at least a thousand dollars per month unfurnished; furnished places in convenient locations can be twice as much.

It’s always been a fact of college housing that less affluent students are expected to be willing to live in subpar housing. Really, it’s a fact of housing beyond college campuses; but often, we see it specifically built up as part of the “broke college experience.” Gross college living environments are often viewed as something of a rite of passage. In the same way people often reminisce about college years spent eating ramen and pulling all-nighters — it’s a common phenomenon to hear people fondly recalling the disgusting living conditions of their youth. 

Like: So, when you were 20 you lived in a three-bedroom apartment with seven people? Aw, you must have been so close! 

And: You had a shitty boiler that was always running out of hot water before you could shower? Well, they do say cold water is good for the skin — maybe that’s why you still look so young! 

And: Oh, your roommate kept you up all hours of the night having aggressively athletic sex with his girlfriend? Ah, the virility of youth!

To me, this tradeoff has always felt at least somewhat natural. Hopefully, this is the most broke I’ll be for the rest of my life; it seems only natural that I should also be living in a dirty, outdated apartment. The fact that students from richer families didn’t have to live in these types of places never sat right with me, but it wasn’t something I spent a lot of time mulling over — I just took it as reality.

But in the last few months, as I have looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the sublease market, I have become genuinely concerned. The original tradeoff may have been between affordability and convenience, but now it is much more serious: a division between affordability and safety. It’s questionable now, as it always has been, that some people are able to buy security for their health. Is it fair that wealthier students are able to comfortably rent high-rise apartment lofts while lower-income students are forced to search for housing in six or seven-bedroom homes? We might say lower-income students have the option to look for housing outside of Ann Arbor — but what if their jobs are downtown? What if they don’t have personal transportation and cheaper apartments aren’t easily accessible by bus? What if they’re immunocompromised or work a front-line job or have preexisting conditions that could worsen the effects of COVID-19?

I’m still looking for an apartment for winter semester and hoping, however unrealistically, that some magical apartment will show up on the Facebook page: A furnished loft in downtown Ann Arbor that’s actually in my budget. Of course, I know that’s likely not going to happen. In the meantime, I’ve been forced to reckon with my own standards for housing and decide how much of a risk I’m really willing to take. Am I prepared to go in blind on a lease, crossing my fingers and hoping my new roommate is not some kind of superspreader? Right now, the answer feels like ‘no.’ I’m lucky to be young and healthy, so I know that even if I do get COVID-19, I likely won’t have a serious case. But I also know it’s unlikely I’ll make it more than a month in Ann Arbor before my parents insist on visiting me, and that they’re at a much higher risk for COVID-19 complications than I am. I might be willing to put myself at risk, but I’m not ready to roll the dice with them.

I may not be able to afford a single-person apartment, but I am one of the privileged few who can stay at home another semester if I truly don’t have any other safe option (sorry, Dad). But for many students, that’s not the case. Some students’ families can’t afford to support them economically; others’ peoples’ families live out of the country or state. And of course, there are those who, for various reasons, simply don’t feel welcome at home. What should those students do? Pay for lofts they can’t afford, or risk getting sick? In an unstable time when a clear solution is necessary, it seems there’s no good answer.


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