Here’s Help for Students Interested In Off-Campus Housing
In pre-COVID times college sophomores, juniors, seniors looked forward to living in off-campus housing. They looked forward to the opportunity to live independently, not be tied to communal living like Greek life, and not be tied to a dining hall meal schedule. At some colleges off-campus housing might be the easiest and best way to have a car while going to school while still living as close as possible to classes. But, depending on the college and the local housing market, leasing requirements may vary. While I like to talk and write about on and off-campus housing issues when I profile a college, the more serious issues about signing a lease require legal expertise.
I asked a friend, and fellow Rutgers alum, Jennifer Leighton, an attorney and partner with Leighton Feldman LLC, a law firm based in Central New Jersey, if she could share some answers to questions that parents and students might have about living in off-campus housing. We had a lengthy conversation about these issues. She generously put her thoughts in writing. I encourage you to read on. Jennifer has made many important points to help parents and lessee students that you’re not likely to find on other college sites.
What should parents and students expect to see in a lease that they might not have seen two years ago?
For the current school year, many leases were signed before COVID-19 became an issue for this country. It is unlikely we will see new lease provisions. However, we may see landlords shifting how they interact with tenants.
Landlords may restrict visitors from buildings, restrict use of common amenities. Or they may limit in-unit maintenance to emergencies. Restrictions based on state or local government directives will be difficult to challenge. But, for things like maintenance, the students should rely upon the terms of their lease as well as the tenant protection laws to insist upon the services they need. I recommend that students pay particular attention to the landlord’s responsibility to regularly clean common areas.
For the upcoming school year, expect to see lease terms that are specifically related to COVID-19.
I would expect provisions imposing an affirmative responsibility on tenants to socially distance, keep things clean and sanitized, and self-quarantine. Due to health privacy laws, landlords cannot legally ask tenants to disclose if they are positive for COVID-19. Landlords may also seek to shift responsibilities to tenants for basic maintenance items (i.e., changing lightbulbs). They might also restrict or complete terminate use to common areas and amenities. I also expect landlords to request higher security deposits to compensate them should student-tenants leave if campuses are shutdown. Finally, if students haven’t already made a housing decision, there may be single semester options available whereas in the past only one-year leases were offered.
What should student tenants do/not do when colleges shift from on-campus to on-line instruction faster than expected?
If students find that learning switches to online, they should talk with their landlord about options. Landlords are not under any obligation to suspend or cancel a lease. However, about half of the landlords have shown a willingness to negotiate. For example, landlords may take half the remaining rent. Another option would be to sublet to students moving out of dorms, but needing to stay close to campus for work or lab access. A third option would be to pre-sign a lease for the next school year, perhaps even at a higher rent, in exchange for being let out of this year’s lease. The bottom-line is that students should reach out and proactively negotiate with their landlords.
Students should also be aware that a landlord’s “promise” to be understanding is not legally binding. If you want to build-in options should school switch to virtual, then those options need to be in writing and signed or email acknowledged by both sides.
Who is liable when student tenants host house parties and attendees become infected?
This question has two parts. A house party may violate state or local government restrictions on gatherings. Right now, New Jersey limits indoor gatherings to 25 people. If the student hosts a party that exceeds this limit, then the student is in violation of the executive order and may be fined. A landlord is only liable if he is aware of the violations and fails to take reasonable action.
Second, whether there is liability for spreading COVID-19 will depend upon a variety of factors, including whether the injured party can trace their infection to the party and the recklessness of the party-goers. The COVID-19 parties that we saw in the spring semester were consenting adults mutually engaging in reckless behavior. A different scenario would occur if someone knew they were positive and intentionally exposed others to COVID-19. I haven’t seen any lawsuits on it yet, but there are past assault cases for people who have spread other infectious diseases.
One other note: colleges usually have codes of conduct that apply to student behavior even when the students are off-campus. Intentionally violating laws by holding large gatherings or intentionally spreading COVID-19 may be deemed a violation of those codes of conduct and subject the student to discipline.
Will landlords be quicker to evict in these situations, given COVID?
This is another two-parter. Student leases are still leases and subject to the various eviction moratoriums that have been put in place by state and local governments. In New Jersey, the Governor has extended the moratorium to 60 days after the end of the healthcare emergency which is still ongoing. Landlords are not permitted to take any action that threatens eviction during this time period. Once this moratorium is lifted, landlords then must go through the eviction process by giving formal notice.
For students who have returned home, the real question is whether landlords will pursue students for unpaid rent. This will vary by the sophistication of the lease agreement and how willing the landlord is to go through litigation. Look for provisions that shift the cost burden of a lawsuit for eviction or unpaid rent to the tenant. Legal fees and costs can be significant and landlords are more likely to file a legal action if they know those costs will be born by the tenant.
New Brunswick, among other college towns, has had ordinances that limit the number of unrelated people who can share a house or apartment. Do you believe that these ordinances will be more aggressively enforced?
Yes, local and campus law enforcement are responsible for enforcing local housing ordinances and the executive orders that limit gatherings. In most college towns, the officers take a service-oriented approach and will generally offer warnings rather than citations. However, where there is a repeat violator, expect law enforcement to take action to enforce the law.
Is it possible that landlords could charge more, insist that students not share bedrooms?
Absolutely, it’s possible but what happens and the reasons for it will vary from college to college. While some landlords faced delinquent tenants, many did not. Last spring, about two-thirds of students stayed on campus after the shutdown. Reports indicate that only 3-4% of student tenants were delinquent heading into the summer months. As a result, some landlords will charge higher rent if demand stays steady or increases. Returning students may avoid the communal aspects of dorm life in favor of having their own bedroom. If there are limited off-campus options, then students may see a natural increase in the rental costs.
On the other hand, some places emptied out. That put a strain on landlords.
I expect some landlords to charge higher security deposits and higher rent on one-year leases. Remember that if tenants don’t pay rent, the landlord still has to pay property taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance. Landlords may look to recoup costs from past unpaid rents and to prepare for the future possibility of unpaid rent.
I expect landlords to also include clauses that the students will behave responsibly in terms of following CDC guidelines, to wear masks when the landlord or his agent comes to the property, and regular cleaning requirements. I don’t believe that landlords can insist that students not share bedrooms as that touches on various Constitutional privacy rights, so if a landlord tries the students should push back.
Are more vacancies likely/unlikely in the off-campus housing market of a college town, neighborhoods in a city near a college?
While freshman enrollment is down in the wake of the pandemic, off-campus housing is largely filled by upperclassman and graduate students. Whether there are vacancies will depend upon each college’s plan to open for in-person or hybrid learning. Colleges that announced virtual only for the fall will naturally have less people around. But off-campus housing options may not be truly “vacant” if there is a lease in place.
Students who are looking for work, internships, or options to spend a semester on another campus should look at the off-campus market. In fact, even at this late date, they may be able to find an apartment or house to share at a lower rate for a semester rather than the full year as landlords look to fill empty space or mitigate the losses caused by a delinquent tenant.
Need legal advice related to off-campus housing at a college in New Jersey? Contact Jennifer Leighton at 609-298-4280. Or visit her online at her Web site
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