Bay Area college students trapped in pre-coronavirus leases

Before the pandemic, San Jose State University student Betty Lee
signed a lease at 27 North, a modern downtown apartment tower close
to campus, for her senior year.

As the school shut down and transitioned to online classes, Lee
lost her�part-time jobs and moved home to Brentwood. With money
tight, she asked to renegotiate her lease.

But Lee said property managers at the private, off-campus
complex gave her few options: either find another roommate to take
her lease, or pay roughly $1,400 a month for an empty room and
parking space through the next academic year. The property managers
and owners declined to comment.

Lee’s father was recently laid off, but has offered to help.
“I feel very guilty putting that toward my rent payments,†she
said. “I know I’m not the only one.â€

Bay Area college students, already disrupted by the pandemic,
are also struggling to renegotiate tightly-drawn leases signed
before the crisis. Lawyers and renter advocates say students at
universities in San Jose, San Francisco and Berkeley — expensive
markets where high demand often forces students into making quick
and early decisions on apartments — are being squeezed to pay
rent for rooms they may never set foot in.

“It’s an enormous, underground issue across the state,â€
said Joseph Tobener, a tenant right’s attorney in San Francisco.
His offices are fielding 10-15 calls a week from harried students
and parents. He doesn’t blame landlords or tenants. “This is a
state law problem.â€

Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Lara Verwer said students are
generally newer to the landlord-tenant relationship, and can more
easily be enticed to sign ironclad leases with stiff penalties.
“It’s almost trapping students,†she said.

Joshua Howard of the California Apartment Association said the
group has been encouraging members to be flexible “and come up
with solutions that can work with the renter and the
landlord.â€

While some property owners have worked with tenants, others have
drawn a hard line. Students and parents complain about stand-offish
or unresponsive property managers and being forced to advertise
apartments on Facebook and Craigslist to find renters to assume
their leases. But the students are competing with their landlords
advertising rent discounts at the same properties.

Tenant protections enacted during the pandemic have postponed
evictions and give struggling residents months to repay back rent.
But the temporary orders have done little for the private
agreements made between students and corporate landlords before the
crisis struck.

Officials at the California State University system, which
encompasses nearly a half-million students on 23 campuses,
announced it will conduct most classes online for the fall term.
Most Bay Area community and city colleges are planning for virtual
classrooms, according to a
survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education
. UC Berkeley
announced last week fall classes will be online. San Jose State,
Stanford and Santa Clara University are proposing hybrid models,
but officials say that could change with health restrictions.

Berkeley students also have been caught in limbo, despite a city
ordinance aimed at protecting them from penalties for breaking
leases.

Graduate student Peter Chen secured his two-bedroom apartment in
April, before the announcement of virtual classes. The Trump
administration’s threat to strip visas for foreign students if
they were not taking in-person classes further complicated the
issue.

One of Chen’s roommates decided to stay in China rather than
risk coming to the states and getting caught in immigration
limbo. The administration has since backed off the order.

Chen, studying electrical engineering, sought
to break his lease and pay a penalty of two months rent — roughly
$8,000 — as the agreement called for. But the landlords at the
Sterling Allston, a 20-year-old apartment complex steps from
campus, cited a recent Berkeley City Council emergency action to
deny the request.

The City Council passed an ordinance stating landlords could not
charge renters certain penalties during the health emergency. The
landlords argued the local law prohibited the two-month payment
clause in the lease. Chen said they demanded he and his roommates
either find another tenant or pay the full amount of their
lease.

Officials for the property owner, The Dinerstein Companies of
Houston, did not respond to a request for comment.

The two sides eventually negotiated a settlement, and Chen paid
a little more than two months rent to move out. He’s since found
a cheaper space with one of his roommates and hopes for fewer
disruptions this year.

For now, he’s staying with a friend until his new lease comes
up. “It’s not a perfect ending,†he said.

San Jose State students have had mixed experiences. The
university offered students in on-campus housing rebates for early
move-outs during the pandemic.

But residents at two private, off-campus complexes In downtown
San Jose  â€” 27 North and The Grad — say they’ve struggled to
negotiate or even connect with property management. Most locked in
leases well before the pandemic, taking advantage of rent discounts
for early renewals and ensuring a reserved apartment with their
friends for fall.

Sarah Ansari, 21, just finished her junior year at San Jose
State taking online business classes from her family home in San
Ramon. Ansari left 27 North during the pandemic, paying rent on her
empty room through July. In August, she starts a new lease at The
Grad. She’s tried unsuccessfully to get relief from her old
landlord and her future landlord. “I’m essentially paying for
an expensive storage unit,†she said.

Randy Schrock signed a lease for his son, Roman, at The Grad on
March 7, about 10 days before shelter-in-place orders were issued
for Santa Clara County. The lease, guaranteed by the father, is
scheduled to run between Aug. 15 and July 31, 2021.

Schrock contacted the property manager after the university
announced it was going to online classes. He said he told them his
son would be living at home in Orange County while taking remote
classes but would like to move into the unit when restrictions are
lifted. He asked for a reduction in rent.

No dice, he said the property manager told him. Schrock would be
liable for the full amount — $16,600 over the term of the lease
— and the property owner would  “use all remedies available to
collect those monies,†Schrock said.

He is still upset. During a health emergency, Schrock said,
companies should think about more than their bottom line.

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 Property management company Asset Living did not respond to
questions about The Grad.

Tobener said students should examine their leases carefully to
see if there are clauses allowing them to break the contract
without penalty. But generally, he said, landlords “are taking a
hard line.â€

Lee texted friends and reached out to other groups living at 27
North. They launched an online petition to get relief, and about
two dozen residents are active on a group chat to pressure the
property owners to negotiate.

Next month, she expects to be at home, taking classes toward her
business major and hopes to be free from her lease.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Bay Area college students trapped in pre-coronavirus
leases