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System may not refund housing if students are forced to move out, UNC-G contract says

Craige Residence Hall as pictured on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Update, 8:56 p.m.: 

UNC Media Relations provided an updated statement Wednesday at 8:00 p.m., stating that UNC's plan is to provide prorated rates to students.

"If during the fall semester on-campus housing is no longer available due to COVID-19, the University’s current approach is to offer prorated housing refunds as it did in the spring semester," UNC Media Relations said. "This plus other contractual and operational information will be released from Carolina Housing in the coming days."

UNC-Greensboro notified its students Monday in a housing contract addendum that the university is not obligated to offer refunds if on-campus students are forced to move out due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the fall. UNC-G later clarified that this policy may affect all 17 schools in the UNC System.

Laura Comino, a student at UNC-G, posted the contract to Twitter Monday evening, leading students from other schools in the System to question the extent of this policy. 

“UNC system students, please read your housing contract for next year,” she wrote. “They’re not refunding housing at all if we’re forced to move out.”

Comino said she found the addendum for the housing contract in an email she received Monday about move-in procedures. 

The amended contract said, “in the event of such temporary closures, restrictions, and/or adjustments to the housing services schedule, the University shall not have the obligation to issue a partial refund or credit for such interruptions or adjustments.”

UNC-G later updated its COVID-19 FAQ website to clarify that the policy came from the UNC System, not the individual institution. 

“UNC System policy guidance indicates UNCG and other institutions may not provide refunds on housing or student fees should our situation change based on COVID-19,” the page read. “...As a system-wide issue, UNCG and the 16 other UNC System institutions will have the same overall guidance, although specific contractual language may vary."

The page was updated once more at 5:00 p.m. on June 23 to further clarify the implications of the addendum.

"We recognize this language has been interpreted as a comprehensive decision not to issue refunds in any circumstances. We would like to clarify this position," the update reads. "Consistent with UNC System guidance, we are advising our students of the possibility that refunds may not be available, particularly absent state or federal financial relief, to aid in student and family decision making ... However, if we are able to find ways to offer financial relief – in the form of refunds or other measures – to support our students, we will do so."

Rick Bradley, UNC-Chapel Hill director of administrative services for Carolina Housing, said that his department had not yet received a notification to change the contract. 

“We are finalizing our residence hall operational and contractual details for fall 2020,” Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing, said in an email statement. “We plan to announce changes soon.”

Media relations representatives for the UNC System did not respond to multiple request for comment by the time of publication.

After receiving the email from UNC-G, Comino said she immediately created a petition Monday asking the UNC System to provide refunds in the event of termination of the housing contract due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In less than 24 hours, the petition garnered over 7,000 signatures. 

“This, for a student in the best situation, is that they’re losing out on a lot of money,” Comino said. “And the worst situation means that some of our students and our peers are gonna be homeless, are gonna be going back to abusive homes, unsafe homes, because not only will they be left without housing, but also any of that money they would have spent on that housing.”

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According to Carolina Housing, UNC-CH may terminate a student’s housing contract on non-disciplinary grounds if a student becomes ineligible to enroll after signing a contract, withdraws from the University before the contract expires, has documented health or psychological reasons or changes in financial conditions that necessitate contract termination or leaves Chapel Hill during the contract term for a study abroad or internship opportunity. 

Students were able to submit Carolina Housing’s contract for the 2020-21 school year when the housing application was open from October 1, 2019 to November 18, 2019 — months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

According to Carolina Housing’s cancellation penalties for the 2019-20 school year, once a student completes the contract, cancellation after March 31 would result in fees. 

For example, if a student enrolled in the University at the time of signing their contract cancels after July 31, they will be responsible for prorated rent plus 50 percent of the remaining contract value, according to the Carolina Housing website. 

At the time of publication, UNC students have not been notified of any changes to the Carolina Housing contract.

The Carolina Housing website states that “it is the student's responsibility to become familiar with all provisions of the Housing Contract, and provisions may be added or changed during the term of the Housing Contract with appropriate prior notification to residents.”

Kathleen Thomas, a UNC School of Law professor whose research interests include contract law, said that the University might be able to make modifications, such as the one Comino posted to Twitter, to the housing contract without agreement from students. 

She said the change might not even technically be considered a modification, but rather something that language in the original contract gave them the right to do. 

Thomas said contract law generally requires that all parties are made aware of any modifications to their contract in order for the change to be valid.  

“To me, this is an example of a contract where one party has all the bargaining power and the other party has no bargaining power,” Thomas said. “We all enter into contracts like that all the time, like when I make an agreement with Apple with my iPhone, they have all the power and I have none.” 

Thomas also said that the UNC System’s policy may simply be guidance — as UNC-G previously stated — and that individual universities may be able to choose to grant refunds if they wanted. 

UNC System interim President Bill Roper previously issued prorated refunds for all students' unused housing and dining services from COVID-19-related campus closures in March.

“It is our commitment to all UNC System students and parents to get this done as quickly as possible," Roper had said in an email statement at the time. "It is also our obligation to get this done right.”

Ankush Vij, a rising senior and Covenant Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he chose to live on campus next semester because he thought the University and the UNC System would refund students if they were forced to leave. 

“They need to obviously reframe their whole mindset of students first and not profits,” Vij said. “We’re not just consumers, we're students that are there to empower the community of UNC and also to make a future.” 

@DTH_UDesk | @kyle_ingram11

Emma Geis

Emma Geis is the 2023-24 copy chief at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a copy board member and summer copy chief. Emma is a fifth-year pursuing a double major in journalism and media and African, African American and Diaspora Studies.