With what has been going on in our world lately, our daily lives have been interrupted in ways we cannot underestimate. One industry that has been affected is college living. With colleges moving towards virtual learning to stay healthy and cautious, students have been forced to leave their dorms and suddenly break their agreements.
Trapped in an Unbreakable Lease
Imagine being trapped in a rental agreement that you could not break with the stress of a semester upended. That is the reality that many students face, and they are beginning to file lawsuits to fight back.
Right down the street from The Orlando Law Group Waterford Lakes office near the University of Central Florida, a class action suit has been filed against a Georgia-based, off-campus apartment operator. Incongruent to what the University has accomplished (they refunded housing money for university-run dormitories), Preferred Apartment Communities Inc. had failed to refund rent paid by students who returned home when campuses closed the middle of March.
Those students are paying monthly rent for a location they are not living in, and for those who have lived near campus, they will attest to the fact that those payments are not low.
They are not alone
In Colorado, students are suing their University for fees that cover services they are no longer receiving due to the pandemic, which has paused on many parts of the campus.
Many of these dues account for the student recreation center, transportation, sports events, and the performing arts center. A local attorney representing the students highlighted the fact that colleges should be held to the standard of any other business. If students are not receiving services, they should not be paying for them.
For the suit that is being filed in Orlando, the client’s mother pays $810 for her daughter’s room at The Retreat. The complex is closely tied to the University and has a technology center, sports facility, a sauna, club room with pool tables, and a coffee bar.
This is highly relevant, as Preferred Apartment Communities stated in a letter that all fitness centers and inside amenity spaces would be shut down. They would only open if emergency repairs needed to be made. Later that month, on March 26th, the housing complex released a statement saying that though they were sympathetic to the hardships brought about by the pandemic, lease agreements would not be altered. They then proceeded to collect rent for March, April, May, and June.
Making a difficult time worse
The Lawyer who represents the student stressed for students and families; the defendant is making a difficult time worse by prioritizing profits over protecting its reputation as a company that cares for its clients. When a tenant breaks a lease, it will hurt their bottom line, but how long can students maintain paying for a space they are not currently living in?
It is unclear how many students have had to return home, but one can assume that this is not an issue within a vacuum. Campuses and the apartment complexes that surround them have begun to encounter these complications. Although there are procedures to prevent eviction, there are not many rules in place for early lease termination as a direct result of the pandemic.
Of course, like most controversial issues, there are always two perspectives. A lease is a legally binding contract. Although a moratorium has been placed on evictions (note that the moratorium only staves off the eviction process and does not prevent it), it does not exclude someone from the obligations placed upon them because of their lease.
Colleges can only provide limited help
Although colleges cannot stand between an off-campus apartment complex and the students who live there, they are trying to help by providing tips for anyone struggling. Indiana University gave its students advice on what to do if you must leave your rental unit early because of the COVID-19 virus.
They highly recommend having all communications done in writing and fully communicating to your landlord your situation. If your landlord agrees to lease termination, be sure that you get it in writing. Specific actions such as cleaning the unit before you leave, removing belongings entirely, and arranging to turn in your keys can help lessen the potential payment you have to make when breaking your lease. Still, unfortunately, such actions might make zero difference in the long run.
Consequences of an Unbreakable Lease
The consequences of breaking your lease could be vast and progressive. Lawyers speculate that once the eviction ban expires, landlords will sue to gain possession of their apartments and seek payment for rent that was unpaid. If you are sued, it could damage your credit, making it harder to own or rent a property in the future.
Landlords can be skeptical of who they decide to rent to, and if they see public records reflecting nonpayment for rent, this could be a dealbreaker. If they choose to work with a collection agency, this could damage your credit score. It is truly a complex issue with many angles to consider.
What can we learn from this situation? Legally speaking, contracts are like tools, each has a use, and each has restrictions and limitations as to how it can be used. We highly recommend starting any complex analysis by taking a deep dive into the language found in the documents that were signed. Sit down with a lawyer (preferably one of ours), to discover how the language in those contracts affects your situation.
When a complex issue arises, both parties feel they are in the right, and both parties stand to lose value they feel entitled to. For the companies that rent to students, they are apprehensive of the mass exodus that would occur if they allowed their tenants to terminate their leases. For the students, paying rent for apartments they do not inhabit is a luxury they cannot afford, but it may be one they inevitably have to pay.