When the University of Maryland, College Park, ended classes in March due to the coronavirus, South Campus Commons canceled students leases for the rest of the academic year.
Julia Kane, who lived there, called it “the right thing to do” during the pandemic.
By June, the university gave students the option to cancel their fall housing agreements without penalty, but South Campus Commons and The Courtyards, the public-private apartments owned by the Maryland Economic Development Corp., did not.
Capstone On-Campus Management, the entity hired to manage the apartments, told 3,000 students, including Kane, that they were legally bound to their leases for the upcoming year. Capstone also added rules and regulations to reflect changes the university made to its housing agreements to address COVID-19.
“When I signed this lease back in February, there was absolutely no expectation of voluntarily submitting to this disease and accepting all responsibility of getting sick or dying,” said Kane, who’s from Montgomery County.
Capstone told its tenants their only options were to re-lease to another student or to pay and either live on-campus or at home, said Kane, a senior studying marketing and operations management and business analytics.
Students and tenant advocates say the situation shows the lack of protections for students stuck in leases amid the uncertainty of when on-campus classes might begin. The school decided Monday to delay the start of in-person classes until Sept. 14.
“It highlights predatory behavior in the rental housing market against students,” said Dariya Brown with the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. “Legislators should know that students are extremely vulnerable amid COVID, but also in general financially.”
Kane and her father, an attorney, put up a fight, arguing the new rules and regulations constituted a change to the lease, which explicitly said Capstone can’t issue new terms and conditions and impose those new terms on their residents.
Kane’s father told Capstone those updates would never hold up in court because the lease was no longer enforceable due to the new terms and conditions imposed after the lease was signed, she said.
In mid-July, Capstone let Kane cancel her lease for the upcoming year, according to emails she shared with The Baltimore Sun.
Capstone did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The university is “making every effort” to support and assist students who have signed leases with the apartments, a spokeswoman said in an email.
MEDCO said in a statement that it can’t cancel the student leases.
“MEDCO is unable to release all students due to our obligations to bond holders, vendors and other entities, as well as not being eligible for any of the federal relief programs currently available,” MEDCO said in a statement. “While MEDCO understands some students may choose to depart from the community while continuing their studies, South Campus Commons and The Courtyards remain open and fully operational, continuing to support those who remain.”
MEDCO also said the management company is being “consistent in practice and with the terms of the current leases” by allowing students out of their lease if they find another eligible student to replace them.
Student housing isn’t the only issue affecting students this fall. Mandatory fees — such as those for athletics and shuttle buses — also are being charged, despite most classes being taught virtually, said Ian Subin, a rising senior finance & information systems major.
Subin was two months into his semester abroad in Madrid when he needed to return home due to the pandemic even though he already paid for the entire five months. His two-month, in-person summer internship was coverted into an 80-hour virtual one, denting his expected income.
Students received refunds for some of last semester’s fees once school shifted online, Subin said. He hopes the university will provide refunds for the services students won’t be unable to use.
Subin questioned why students will be paying a full set of fees this fall as if the school were operating normally. Several of his friends already have expressed plans to stay out of school for a semester or a year, he said, due to the full costs being charged.
“It’s not necessarily that they don’t like how Maryland is handling things in the pandemic, but it doesn’t feel worth the value of their dollar,” Subin said. “You’re paying as if you are getting that same degree and that same experience as an in-person class, but you’re doing it online.”
The university said in a statement that tuition and fees are necessary to cover administrative and academic expenses, including faculty salaries.
“We recognize the financial impact COVID-19 has had on our students and their families. Our mandatory fees support a variety of resources and services that students will have access to when we begin the fall semester,” the university said in a statement. “This includes access to library, technology and health center resources. With the resumption of on-campus activity and virtual education and programming, these fees remain essential to our operations and functions.”
A university spokeswoman also pointed out the university’s Student Crisis Fund provides financial support to any student needing immediate assistance due to an unexpected emergency. The university has used that program to provide over $425,000 to nearly 1,000 students since April.
The housing outcry from students, meanwhile, is gaining attention as more than 2,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking the university to release students from their South Campus Commons and The Courtyards leases for the 2020-2021 school year.
Computer science senior Simin Li said the university should be advocating for students who need to cancel their leases, but instead the university has only been in contact with students to say “this is a private company and this is not our problem.”
It doesn’t make sense, said Del. Marc Korman, a Democrat from Montgomery County, for the university and MEDCO to act as if they cannot cancel the lease agreements. Korman said the two entities could ask Gov. Larry Hogan to pursue federal relief funding, they could renegotiate with their bond holders, “but it does not make sense to put that pressure on the students.”
The university is planning to offer 20% of its classes in person, Korman said, but he thinks that could decline, adding that students shouldn’t be clustered in large groups anyway during the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s too late, and I think that the two entities need to get into a virtual room and figure something out,” Korman said. “They were able to figure something out in the spring, and now they need to figure out something for the fall.”