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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Students struggle to break free from Fall off-campus housing contracts

Off Campus housing

Zoe Leigh is more than 800 miles from the apartment she wanted to make memories in.

The 21-year-old UF music education senior is currently home living with her parents in Delaware. She worked for weeks to get out of her lease for her off-campus apartment in Gainesville.

For a while, she had no luck. Along with juggling the stress of living at home, she needed to deal with a housing company that refused to cooperate with her or even return her calls, she said.

“On top of battling with people who clearly don't care about you as a student or human being, even though they say they do, it's just tiresome,” she said. ”So, it's just not what I thought I would be doing at this point.”

With the majority of UF classes moved online, students are struggling to terminate their Fall leases, stay in their hometowns and remain financially afloat during the pandemic. Some apartment complexes have offered relief, while others have been strict about not breaking any leases.

About 125 students have come to UF Student Legal Services trying to break their leases since UF announced its reopening plan July 10, which includes most Fall course sections being taught online, said Jon Adcock, director of UF’s Student Legal Services.

After speaking with landlords across Gainesville, they expect most students to return, despite most students having online classes, UF Vice President for Student Affairs D’Andra Mull said in a faculty town hall.

Leigh re-signed at University Club Apartments in October 2019 and was excited to live with her best friends for their last semester in Gainesville. They had a bucket list of things they wanted to complete in Gainesville before they graduated: including making ceramics at the Reitz Union and visiting Paynes Prairie, she said.

She added she lost her on-campus job in the computer lab in the UF school of music and cannot afford to pay her rent in the Fall.

When her classes were announced online for the Fall, she did not want to live in her four bedroom apartment anymore because she would not be in control of who her roommates saw or the maintenance team that comes into her apartment, she said.

For months, she called and emailed the company who owns the apartment complex, American Campus, asking for help getting out of her lease. She did not receive a response from them for weeks, but luckily she was able to find someone to take over her full-year lease.

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“I think I'm just tired of being upset about it,” she said. “I'm just excited for it to be over.”

Due to construction delays, students who signed with Midtown Apartments had an opportunity to cancel their leases. Until July 23 at 5 p.m., those with leases for the upcoming school year were able to completely terminate their leases or delay their first lease payment until Sept. 1.

Jamilah Redd, a leasing and marketing manager for The Enclave, said all of their signed leases are still in place for the Fall. The Enclave is part of a larger company of leasing properties around Gainesville which includes Gainesville Place Apartments, Lexington Crossing Apartments, The Landings and College Park.

She said there are a few things offered to assist students with financial issues such as a three-day grace period for their leases without a penalty and no late fees, but there is no way to get out of their contracts. Students still have the option of subleasing their room, given they find someone to take over their lease in the Fall.

University Club Apartments has an addendum to their leases that tenants are expected to sign. It does not hold the apartment complex liable for anyone who contracts COVID-19 in the complex and does not require them to provide a written or verbal notice of COVID-19 in the apartment community to their residents.

The reason why Taylor Harris, 19-year-old UF animal sciences sophomore, is coming back to Gainesville this month is because she has a lease she cannot break. She has been working at a convenience store and saving her money over the summer in preparation for the expenses of living off campus.

She will be moving into University Club Apartments and said she is worried about her safety after reading the addendum. She has never lived off campus and does not know how often she will come in contact with other people, such maintenance personnel.

“It definitely says they don't actually care about people and they only care about the money, which is sad but true,” she said.

Brianna Hernandez, a media relations representative for American Campus, declined to comment on whether they have required their residents to sign an addendum to their leases.

In an email to The Alligator, she wrote that the company is waiving all late fees, online payment fees and is not pursuing “financial related evictions” as part of their Resident Hardship Program.

Across their properties, which also include 2nd Avenue Center and Royal Village Apartments in Gainesville, they have installed touchless soap dispensers, hand dryers and sensors on light switches where possible in an effort to limit contact as much as possible, she said. If a resident or employee is experiencing symptoms, they are encouraged to contact their health care provider, she said.

Adcock said students began contacting the UF Student Legal Center months ago asking for help securing a place to live in Fall in case classes were in-person. Students said they also wanted to be protected in case they were online.

In the 17 years he has been at UF, he said he has not seen a situation where landlords have been working with students this much on financial issues such as payment plans and forgiving late fees.

The general advice Adcock gives to students in financial situations is to simply reach out to their landlords and speak to them, instead of hiding from them.

“But again, it's not necessarily them being soft hearted,” he said. “It's a matter of some money is better than no money for them.”

He said landlords have been unlikely to fully break a lease agreement for the Fall.

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