College students look for way out of leases as classes move online

As many colleges and universities move to online classes during the pandemic, some students and parents are finding themselves stuck in leases with no way out.  

Like many college students, San Jose State freshman Tyler Ly's academic year was cut short by the coronavirus. As universities nationwide shifted classes online, students like Tyler scrambled to pack up and move home, leaving vacant off-campus housing.  “We’re paying $1,087 per person in the apartment to not even live there," said Ly. 

Tyler asked his property manager about getting out of his lease before it legally ends in July and the new lease he signed starting in August for the new year. “The best answer they gave is to find a replacement," said Ly. "In this current climate, it’s really hard to find someone that’s willing to sublet an apartment for only four months.”

We reached out to the management company at 27 North, the building where he rents. They sent us this statement: 

We recognize that this is a very difficult time and these are uncharted waters for everyone. Our thoughts are with all those who have been impacted medically and financially by this virus. We are working with current residents who let us know that they will have trouble paying rent due to COVID-19 and being as flexible as possible for them during this time. It’s important to note that we are privately owned and operated and not affiliated with the university. Our leases are not affected by whether the school is open or closed. In order to provide a home for those who still wish to live here now and next year, we have to uphold the lease agreements that are in place and treat every lease holder as equally as possible.  We are continuing to reevaluate this situation as new information becomes available. 

Tenantts' rights attorney Joseph Tobener said as more colleges move to virtual classes now and for the fall, his office being bombarded by panicked parents and students. “Landlords are not allowing residents to break leases like they normally would," said Tobener. " The entire housing economy has spun 180 degrees and suddenly landlords aren’t able to re-rent units.” 

In Tyler's case, his leases have compounded his family's financial problems.  “My mom owns a beauty salon, and she was forced to temporarily close her business down, it’s not essential," said Ly.  "My dad owns a bagel shop, he’s not getting much foot traffic either.”

But, these college students aren't the only ones suffering. The California Apartment Association, which represents owners and landlords sent this statement:

This is going to be a difficult situation. Certainly, students who've moved home because classes have gone virtual might want to discuss those circumstances with their landlord. While most landlords will likely be understanding, it's important to remember that their investments are dependent on those units being occupied. If most units sit vacant in the fall, we're going to see many rental investments near college campuses go belly up. It's important for our state Legislature to keep this in mind as it explores further COVID-19 relief measures.

“We need funding for landlords, funding for tenants, we need to keep people housed and we need to know how big this problem is," said Tobener. 

Tyler is pleading with his property managers and lawmakers for any relief. “It’s unacceptable to keep everyone on the hook no matter what," he said. "Regardless of whatever they’re going through.

Tobener said the only legal relief tenants might have is in the form of an "act of God" clause, which he said very few agreements include.