PROVO — Some property owners are working with BYU students on a case-by-case basis to release them from housing contracts because of COVID-19 concerns.
BYU student Benjamin Schneider said management at Bainbridge Square told him he could cancel his housing contract after he reached out to them explaining that he has a car and student loan to pay off, is currently searching for a job and doesn’t feel living in Provo under the circumstances is best.
Schneider sent his landlord a link to a Change.org petition with more than 17,000 signatures imploring the BYU Off-Campus Housing Office to let students cancel their housing contracts amid COVID-19. He also cited a clause in his contract that says students can terminate their contract if they leave “school due to a verified unforeseeable and unexpected catastrophic loss or serious illness.”
The clause appears in most contracts as BYU requires all single undergraduate students to live in approved housing unless they complete a waiver and receive approval from the Off-Campus Housing Office. The contract is the same for all BYU-approved apartments, however, the clause has been called “ambiguous” by some and has been interpreted to mean different things by various stakeholders.
To cancel, Schneider said he was told he’d need to forgo his security deposit and last month of the contract’s rent, but will likely agree to the terms.
Karla Maseuli, assistant manager of FCS Community Management that has 40% of BYU-approved housing at Belmont Condos, said it has received some requests from students wanting to void their contracts.
As each condo is individually owned, the property owner gets final say.
It’s “case by case,” Maseuli said. Though a few have been let out so far, owners are working with students to establish solutions.
“Every time we get a request we just send them to the owner and try to work with them,” she said.
Other students have been less successful in their endeavors.
First-year law student Julie Brooks started the petition last week after she tried to cancel her contract with a different apartment complex. Like many students, she believes COVID-19 falls under the unforeseeable and unexpected catastrophic loss clause, especially because the university encouraged students to return home if they are able.
The petition implores BYU to leverage relief for students who want to go and not continue paying rent for any empty apartment. Brooks said she’s also reached out to the Provo city government for aid multiple times.
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi and BYU administration are encouraging landlords to release students from their housing contracts, but are leaving final decisions between students and the property owners.
“The city can’t modify these contracts, but we can encourage things from the sidelines. In that spirit, I hope that landlords who are in a financial position to do so will factor compassion into their decision-making,” Kaufusi said in a statement. “I hope students and parents will be courteous and cooperative in trying to work through these issues.”
BYU sent out an email on March 14 cautioning landlords that if they are unable to provide for the health and safety of students by following health department guidelines in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, they “may be in violation of the university’s agreement with them.”
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins echoed this in a statement, saying they’ve let owners, landlords and property owners know the university encouraged students to leave and “recognizing the university does not have the authority to mandate students be released from legally binding contracts, and that in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak landlords would be required to follow health department guidelines for providing a safe space for students to either be isolated or quarantined.”
Brooks said she believes Kaufusi, BYU and many landlords are “mischaracterizing” what students are asking. She emphasized that students are not asking for their contracts to be modified — they are asking that landlords “honor the terms of the contract” the way they are written.
“The contract says that a student may terminate a lease agreement if the student is leaving school because of an unforeseeable serious illness,” Brooks said. “It is irrelevant whether the student has that illness, what is relevant is if the illness is a valid reason for the student to leave. BYU asked us to leave because of COVID-19; clearly the university views it as a valid reason for leaving.”
Suzanne Metler, office manager for Legend Real Estate, which leases Brooks’ apartment, said property owners make the decision on a case-by-case basis whether to release students under the clause.
She said there are a variety of factors that landlords need to consider, and that everyone is going to take a financial hit from this disaster.
Paul Chavez, parent of a UVU student living in BYU-approved housing unit The Branbury, expressed frustrations that some students have been able to get out of their contracts, while others haven’t.
“Why can one authority do it and not another?” he said. “There’s something wrong there.”
He recalled trying to help his daughter get released from her contract so she could come home and not have to worry about paying rent, but finding no success.
His daughter was ultimately able to sell her contract, but Chavez said he’s still going to fight for students as there are others out there who don’t have parents to fight for them.
“A contract is a contract, I understand that, but in certain circumstances I believe that there should be a little bit of leniency,” he said.