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How to get out of your student housing lease

A man carries items up a ramp into a U-Haul truck parked in a driveway.
The coronavirus pandemic has left some students unsure about their housing plans next semester.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

California colleges are by and large still working out the details of what campus life will like look in the fall, even as they announce whether they’ll be open, closed or — most likely — somewhere in between.

That means some students are making housing decisions based on limited information, including the number of in-person classes they’ll have and how communal bathrooms will work.

If you’re having second thoughts about an apartment or dorm room you signed up for, you may have options.

On campus

Students who aren’t ready to face the potential new normal of dorms — such as deserted common areas and assigned bathroom stalls — can most likely still back out. The key is to check your school’s housing cancellation policy for details. Different campuses within a single university system may handle onsite housing differently. That’s the case for both University of California and California State University.

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Several colleges are allowing students to cancel on-campus housing contracts — but they differ on deadlines, refund policies and penalty fees. Cal State Northridge and Cal State Los Angeles offer refunds up to to the start of the fall semester. UCLA’s cutoff for refunds is when the contract’s term begins. USC students must cancel before July 15. UC Irvine recently modified its policy to allow students to cancel before Sept. 1 for a full refund. Cal State Long Beach imposes a fee on cancellations less than 30 days before the contract begins, as well as a service fee of $275 no matter when the contract is canceled.

Many students, however, will face the opposite problem: They will not be able to secure desired housing on campus as universities move to decrease density to promote safety during the pandemic. Several campuses said they are working to offer alternative housing solutions, including consulting with local hotels and private housing owners.

“We want our students back, our students want to come back, but we have to be smart about it,” said Sheri Ledbetter, a spokeswoman for UC Irvine, who described the housing situation as a “tug of war.” UC Irvine is no longer offering incoming freshmen its two-year on-campus housing guarantee.

Last school year, you might have spent weeknights in a study room with poor circulation, surrounded by friends as you crammed for exams.

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Off campus


Privately owned off-campus housing is a different animal. These are often regular apartments that involve leases governed by landlord-tenant law, not campus policy. American Campus Communities (ACC), a large national student housing owner and operator, falls under this category, as do housing companies that just happen to lease to a large number of students.

“Unlike universities where housing is provided in connection with academic services and is contingent on a student’s enrollment status and subject to campus restrictions, we cannot simply evict everyone and shut down a housing community,” said Jason Wills, senior vice president of development for ACC. “The lease agreement requires that our communities remain operational, provide essential services to tenants and pay utilities and real estate taxes.”

Students living in an off-campus apartment not affiliated with a university will need to take the same approach as anyone who wants to get out of a residential lease.

Before attempting to break or renegotiate a lease, do these four things:

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  1. Check your lease for an attorney fee provision. They’re common in residential leases, and they mean that the tenant is on the hook for the other side’s attorney fees if the matter goes to court and the tenant is ordered by a judge to pay up. Those fees can dwarf the cost of back rent, according to Joseph Tobener, a Bay Area attorney specializing in tenant law. That makes them a major risk factor for tenants and potentially parent co-signers.
  2. Check if your lease includes a force majeur clause, also known as an “acts of God” clause. Such clauses nullify contracts when circumstances beyond a party’s control — such as natural disaster, war or a global pandemic — arise that make the obligation impossible and impractical to fulfill. This provision is uncommon in residential leases.
  3. Determine if an amendment or change to the lease must be signed by all parties. Most require it. “So it’s not enough to get an email; you really need to get this amendment in writing,” including rent reduction or deferral agreements, Tobener said.
  4. Then you — and any roommates — need to decide whether you want to try to get a rent reduction or other arrangement to keep the unit, or whether you want to cancel the lease entirely.

Canceling a lease

Those intent on moving out should give a standard 30-day notice to vacate. The notice “would cut off your damages and trigger the landlord’s duty to mitigate” damages, Tobener said. A duty to mitigate means the landlord is required to re-rent the unit as soon as possible. Tenants can’t be charged for unpaid rent if the unit could have been re-rented and the money reasonably recouped.

Once notice is given, Tobener recommends posting an ad for the room or apartment on Craigslist or a similar platform to find applicants for the landlord. The string of applicants are evidence that the landlord could re-rent the property and mitigate damages, he said.

Another option is using your entire security deposit toward your last month’s rent. Tenants can then give a 60-day notice to vacate and use the unit during that time, Tobener said. Previously, Tobener didn’t recommend this move because it would have likely been met with a three-day notice to vacate the dwelling or face eviction. Now, under a temporary statewide eviction moratorium, tenants in California can’t be evicted. “It’s an aggressive move,” he said, “but it’s the right move so that the landlord can’t steal more than your security deposit.”

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College students are making fall housing decisions, including whether to sign and break leases, based on limited details of what campus life will look like.

Staying put and negotiating

If you want to try to keep the unit, it’s time to put your negotiator’s hat on. Reach out to your landlord and initiate a conversation. According to Tobener, “Your leverage is that the landlord isn’t going to be able to [easily] re-rent and probably doesn’t want to deal with the collections action.”

Consider subleasing, sometimes called subletting. Some jurisdictions, like San Francisco, give tenants the right to make what’s called one-to-one replacements. In an apartment with four roommates where just one wants to move out, for example, the provision allows the remaining roommates to find another tenant to replace the one who’s leaving. Matt Brinton, a tenant’s attorney in Los Angeles, said Angelenos don’t have the same right. But even if it’s not written into your local law, you can always talk to your landlord about the possibility of subleasing, Tobener said.

Tenants can also ask landlords for a rent reduction, deferral or waiver. Residents in certain places, like Los Angeles and several Bay Area cities, are eligible for a deferral during the coronavirus emergency.

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For students, “the rent reduction would be temporary, until the college is back open,” Tobener said.

Some large student housing owners, like American Campus Communities, allow students affected by COVID-19 to apply for relief.

After having difficulty finding someone to sublet her UC Berkeley-adjacent apartment, student Saya Linney worked out a rent reduction agreement with her landlord for the summer months while she and her roommates are away.

Avoid this

Something to keep in mind: If no one pays the rent for the apartment, the landlord can go after just one person for payment under a legal principle called joint and several liability. “So they can go after the most creditworthy person, the person that has the deepest pockets,” Tobener said. That tenant would then need to seek reimbursement from co-tenants.


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