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Students struggle to pay rent and negotiate leases due to economic impact of COVID-19

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Chapel Ridge Apartments, a popular off-campus apartment complex, is reported to have had unmasked social events such as volleyball games.

Some UNC students who live in off-campus rentals are now trying to find ways to renegotiate their leases due to the economic impact of COVID-19 and the University’s switch to remote learning.

Tenants in North Carolina are protected from eviction until April 17 because of COVID-19, but that date may change, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. Tristan Routh, a staff attorney for Carolina Student Legal Services, said despite being protected from eviction now, tenants will still be responsible for the back pay when the courts open back up to process evictions.

“The landlord might not file for eviction, but they could still file a court action for the past due rent,” Routh said. “And the statute of limitations, meaning the time limit the landlord has to file that kind of action for the money part, is three years from when you breached the contract.”

Jane Bailey, a sophomore environmental sciences major at UNC, said she and her roommate Quinn Deutschendorf, a Durham Tech student, have been struggling to renegotiate their $800 rent with their landlord. Deutschendorf said everything started when their landlord sent a message around the time the pandemic began asking tenants to provide a spare set of keys for their units if they were leaving Chapel Hill.

Deutschendorf said their landlord made it clear that they were not offering any cancellation of leases under any circumstance due to COVID-19. He said the landlord informed them that the rent was still due and that the only option to terminate their lease was to sublet the apartment.

“The situation is pretty awful for college students,” Bailey said. “If your budget is specific to your situation, and then all of a sudden everything is all thrown out of whack.”

Bailey said the pandemic has affected their budget and household income, partially because Bailey was unable to continue her work-study job remotely. Bailey said paying a full rent in addition to getting the resources they needed for online courses would cause them to overextend their budget.

“And then you have to account for a lot of the extra things,” Bailey said. “The only way it was going to be economically feasible to take these online classes would be to move back in with my parents.”

Bailey said when she reached out to her landlord on Wednesday to see if it would be possible to prorate her summer rent, she was informed that the complex would be raising rent after the lease period ends on May 31. She said she and her roommate would be finding a new place to live for the next semester.

Dustin Engelken, the government affairs director for the Triangle Apartment Association, said it is important for people to remember that there is a vast range of types of landlords, from individuals to larger corporate companies. He said due to the differences in business types, the flexibility, programs and assistance landlords have to offer tenants varies widely.

“Everybody has been affected by this in their own way,” Engelken said. “And we’re all very cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot of people out of work, there’s a lot of people whose lives have been upended in the last month, and that’s obviously going to have an impact on their ability to pay rent.”

Engelken said landlords are generally ready to work with their residents to the extent that they can.

He said there has never been a better time for tenants to reach out to their landlords and have a conversation with them and use that conversation to find out what landlords are willing and able to do, which may include partial payments, payment plans or waiving payments altogether.

Routh said he has had some small successes in renegotiating payments for tenants in Chapel Hill.

“I’ve had one landlord here in town that allowed one of my clients to pay some reduced rent,” Routh said.

He said he went back to the same landlord a few days later with a different client, but he was told that they were not able to do that. Routh said he was able to get a different landlord to arrange a payment plan for a client.

Jenny Deview, a junior anthropology major at UNC, said she lives with her boyfriend in a townhouse with a 2-year lease. Deview said her landlady, who lives in California, was able to reduce her rent from $950 to $700. 

“The community here is a lot more understanding and forgiving than what I have heard of in Florida, too,” Deview said. “Thankfully, I am able to do my work-study job online, so that is also a relief.”

Deview said despite being able to continue her work-study job, she and her boyfriend have been hurt economically by the pandemic. She said when her boyfriend was laid off, she was glad her landlady was able to assist them. 

“She actually offered to lower rent for the time being just to cover HOA costs and the basics,” Deview said. “Next month, she will ask how things are and if we still need the reduction.”

Chapel Ridge Student Apartments has also made some changes to help accommodate tenants that are being negatively impacted by COVID-19. The complex sent an email to tenants on March 26 informing them that the date late fees would be applied was extended to April 15, and that the complex is absorbing fees related to online payments. 

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Routh said although landlord and tenant issues are among the most common cases that Carolina Student Legal Services receives, there has been a significant increase in the number of students reaching out to them, and those complaints mostly stem from COVID-19.

He said while leases typically are set in stone, he recommends students continue to reach out to legal services for help in negotiating and that students take advantage of the Carolina Student Impact Fund for assistance.

“Most of the landlords have just been saying ‘We’re not going to alter what we require of the tenant at this time,'” Routh said. “But again, it never hurts to ask.”


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