Students navigate apartment contracts, subleasing amid fall semester and COVID-19 uncertainty

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Photo Credit: Steph Sonik | Daily Texan Staff

As classes move online and COVID-19 creates financial uncertainty, some students are trying to get out of their off-campus apartment leases for the upcoming school year.

Apartments, unlike on-campus residence halls, are privately owned and unaffiliated with the University. As thousands of classes move online and students weigh whether to return to campus, signed leases remain legally binding. Apartment complexes begin leasing units as early as one year in advance, offering 12-month leases starting the next school year, so many students signed leases for the 2020-2021 year before the pandemic hit.

The coronavirus has caused economic hardship for many families, with 2.7 million Texans filing unemployment insurance claims since mid-March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some students say they are unable to afford rent for apartments they signed leases for as early as last October. Meanwhile, they say they have encountered difficulties exiting their contracts, as many landlords tell residents the only way out is to sublease the apartment to someone else. 

Psychology sophomore Hanul Lee said she is trying to get out of her lease for the upcoming year. She wants to return to her family, who lives in El Salvador and has lost money because of the pandemic, but Lee said her apartment lease is keeping her in Austin. If she cannot sublease, Lee said she won’t have enough money to afford tuition.

“I’ll have to sacrifice my education,” Lee said. “I’ll probably withdraw for the whole entire year, and save that money … and pay off the apartment.”

At American Campus Communities apartments, residents who do not plan to occupy their housing can sublet, said Gina Cowart, vice president of branding, marketing and communications at American Campus Communities. She said residents experiencing hardship and loss of income due to COVID-19 are being worked with on a case-by-case basis.

One lease by Pointe on Rio reads that “even an act of God” is not enough for a tenant to break the signed terms, according to a copy obtained by The Daily Texan. Of the nine apartment companies the Texan contacted, Lark declined to comment, and Ion, Inspire 22nd, Nine at Rio, Quarters on Campus, Villas on Nueces, Twenty Two 15, and Pointe on Rio did not respond by the time of publication.

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said the University sympathizes with housing situations students face, but does not have any authority to intercede with housing contracts.

Adjunct law professor Nelson Mock said tenants trying to get out of their leases should examine what their contract says about termination and discuss their circumstances with their landlord. If the landlord gives an early release, Mock said he recommends confirming the terms in writing. 

Tenants with immunocompromised conditions may be able to terminate their leases under the Fair Housing Act. People who live in a situation that endangers their health can request “reasonable accommodations” for that disability, which may include lease termination without fees, and landlords must comply, Mock said. 

Tenants pursuing this option should document the situation in writing and obtain a letter from a medical provider, Mock said.

Issayana Gavino, an arts and entertainment technologies sophomore, said her family has lost income, and she cannot afford her future rent. Despite explaining her situation, her landlord said her only option was subleasing, she said. Gavino said she is also worried about the health risks of living in densely populated West Campus.

“My dad lost his job due to this whole pandemic, and he was the one I probably would’ve heavily relied on to help me pay for everything,” Gavino said. “(I thought) maybe my financial aid will help me out … (but) I wasn’t given as much financial aid as last year.”

Public relations junior Zoë Sandoval said she is trying to sublease her apartment because her landlord gave her no other options. She said she recognizes the University cannot interfere with off-campus housing, but wishes they would offer financial or legal assistance to students.

“They need to do more to show us that they care,” Sandoval said.