As COVID-19 Disrupts Higher Education, Students Find Themselves Trapped in Long Term Leases

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Louis Hansen’s story in the July 26th San Jose Mercury News, “Bay Area college students trapped in pre-coronavirus leases,” helps to illuminate how the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Bay Area’s overheated rental markets are creating housing insecurity for students whose lives have already been deeply changed by the ongoing public health emergency.

The pandemic has thoroughly disrupted both academic and economic life at California’s colleges and universities. The Mercury News story, featuring BayLegal client Betty Lee and housing attorney Lara Verwer, shows how students have had to cancel travel and moving plans, and have seen their reasons for living near campuses diminish as schools have moved coursework online for the 2020-21 academic year. In many cases, they have also seen work study jobs–a key source of income support for students struggling to meet housing and other costs in some of the state’s most expensive cities–shrink or disappear completely as in-person campus life shuts down.

For a significant number of students, this disruption is made worse and its economic impact amplified by highly restrictive, often multi-year leases that institutional student housing companies have in some cases aggressively marketed to student tenants. Given the realities of the pandemic, for many students the best option is moving back to the family home, or finding shared housing in a less expensive market from which to continue distance learning. But for students locked into 12-18 additional months on a lease, and held liable for the full cost of the remaining months (often in excess of $15,000), the barriers to sustaining enrollment while keeping themselves housed and afloat financially can be severe.

The issue hits students from low-income families and first-generation college attendees disproportionately hard. We hope that the welcome spotlight provided by Hansen’s story helps to bring housing justice for students like Betty within reach.