Off-campus housing leases leave residents in tenuous situations

Julianna Pantoja | Daily Trojan

Walking up to the USC Housing booth outside Troy Hall on her scheduled move-out day to retrieve her boxes and drop off her USC Bookstore textbooks, Kathrin Altmann was not expecting the process to go so smoothly. She thought her move-out experience would be similar to the one she had had moving her boyfriend out of his apartment complex — moving out his belongings little by little, with no communication from the landlord on specific protocols or social distancing guidelines. 

For students living in off-campus housing complexes, Altmann, a graduate student studying communication management, said her boyfriend had been facing insufficient communication from landlords amid the pandemic. Other students have battled issues with rent payments, many contending that the remainder of their rent should be credited, reduced or refunded as the pandemic progresses. 

Ahmad Faisal, a 2020 graduate who majored in architecture, has lived in Tuscany Apartments since his junior year. Faisal’s two roommates moved out when classes first transitioned online and students in the USC area were asked to return home. Faisal decided to stay and ride out his yearlong lease, which his parents will cover through July.

“It’s completely empty now,” Faisal said. “Ever since spring break, I’ve been living alone in this apartment, which is a good thing and a bad thing because I technically have a three-bedroom apartment to myself, so there’s a lot of space and stuff, but also at the same time, it gets really lonely … when I would leave my room and go outside [before the pandemic], I would always see people around, but now I barely see anyone. Even the leasing office has been shut down.”

Tuscany Apartments prohibited common access to its public amenities, including gyms, study lounges and the pool, beginning March 13 due to concerns regarding community transmission of the coronavirus. However, the apartment complex continued to charge residents the full price of their rent and denied requests to end leases, while residents of University-owned housing received prorated refunds based on their checkout date, regardless of the length of their contracted rental period.

“I thought [USC Housing made] a very morally ethical decision because if [students] aren’t living [in housing], why should they be paying rent?” Faisal said. “Given the circumstances where so many people have moved out, I don’t think it’s fair for people like my roommates, who did move out so early on, to keep having to pay rent until the end of July.” 

At the time of publication, other housing complexes near campus, such as The Lorenzo and West 27th, are also mandating residents pay their monthly rent, despite many vacating their rooms. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti banned no-fault evictions resulting from pandemic-related changes in financial circumstances March 23 and has extended the policy through the end of the local state of emergency.

Some students, including several who have lost their jobs amid the pandemic fallout, feel the housing complexes’ no-refund policy is unfair given the unforeseeable circumstances that forced them from their residences. Students living at Lorenzo Apartments started a petition calling for management to temporarily reduce their monthly rental rates.

“Although most of the residents have already left the complex due to fear of their own safety … Lorenzo still charges all residents,” the petition read. “Students are [on] a tight budget. Many have lost their source of income and are forced to head back home. These students have to figure out a way to pay their rent.”

The petition, started by a group named Lorenzo Residents, cites the cancellation of amenities and services that Lorenzo management typically provides, such as weekly events, twice-weekly free meals and in-person fitness classes, as grounds for modification to rental contracts. The benefits, according to the petition, are what many believe justify the price tag of renting a room at the housing complex.

However, Lorenzo management has upheld the complex’s original rental rates despite the cancellation of benefits. According to the petition, students who have lost their main sources of income face tighter budgets and may not be able to pay the $1,140 for rent and utilities.

Emma Zhang, a Tuscany resident who traveled back to China, said she also believes she should not be asked to pay rent when she is not physically present in her apartment. 

“I just packed everything into boxes, just in case I couldn’t go back in time to move out so somebody else [could help me move out],” said Zhang, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in global communication. “The only thing that’s [bothering] me is I’m paying for housing without living there, so I’m actually paying for nothing.”

The University coronavirus website strongly advises students who live in off-campus non-University housing to discuss their individual situations with their current landlords or hire an attorney before taking any action related to off-campus housing because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, unlike other USC students facing issues with paying rents for off-campus housing complexes, Altmann is facing another problem: moving into her new apartment complex. 

Instead of staying in Troy Hall along with her other roommates who could not go back to their homes abroad, Altmann decided to pack a large suitcase with essential belongings and move in with her boyfriend at Park La Brea after USC asked students to vacate University housing, as classes would be held online for a week after spring break.

The week of virtual instruction stretched into months. While Altmann first worried about housing refunds and picking up her belongings, those issues were soon resolved, leaving her with another concern: finding a new apartment complex she and her boyfriend could stay in upon their leases’ expirations.

“Having to find a new place during this time … was obviously tricky because how do you look at apartments [with ongoing] social distancing?” Altmann said. 

After finding a place to live, the two also faced the issue of moving into a new apartment and buying new furniture. Previously living in University housing, Altmann owned few living essentials and had to find most of her furniture on Facebook Marketplace, Wayfair and Target, finding difficulty throughout the process since many items were sold out or not being manufactured at the time. 

“I do realize it’s a very privileged problem to have,” she said. “But you need a bed.” 

Moving to a housing complex farther away from campus, Altmann applied for a California license in early March in hopes of using a car for her commute. However, with the pandemic forcing the Department of Motor Vehicles to postpone driver’s license tests, Altmann is now concerned she will have to rely on public transportation in the fall if the pandemic does not subside.

“Riding buses right now, to me, doesn’t really seem safe healthwise,” Altmann said. “I’m very worried about not being able to get my license, get a car and get to where I need to be in fall because what if I [have an internship] or I work on campus? That’s something that is kind of worrying for me with the move.”

Compared to how USC Housing handled the situation — allowing students to remain on campus if they were unable to return home and issuing refunds — Altmann said she believes off-campus complexes should improve their communication with their residents amid the pandemic and ensure social distancing as leases are ending and residents are moving out. 

“It wasn’t like my boyfriend’s old complex wasn’t attentive, because if we had an issue, they came … but it was more corporate,” Altmann said. “[Our new landlord is] more like ‘Oh, I want to make sure that the tenants who are in there right now are going to be totally safe, so please wear masks, please wear gloves’ … With the other complex, I didn’t even know where we were going to drop off the key.”

With bans on international travel in place, Zhang also worries she will be unable to return to the United States in time to move out by her lease’s July 30 expiration date.

“There is a great possibility that I won’t be able to make [the move-out date],” Zhang said. “I still need to find a place to stay after that, I still need to know where I’m going to move my stuff to.”

In regard to move out guidelines, Zhang said housing complexes should be more cautious of social distancing and keep health and safety standards. She also said she believes off-campus locations should follow USC Housing’s lead by creating a schedule for resident move-out to limit students’ interpersonal contact. 

Faisal also said he would have liked more communication from his housing complex regarding the move-out process and wished landlords acknowledged that economic circumstances incurred by the pandemic may have impacted residents’ ability to pay rent. Privately owned residential complexes would benefit from better emergency planning and more thorough efforts to ensure residents’ well-being in these scenarios, Faisal said.

“I feel like it’s going to be very hard to get back to the ways things were before … but I feel like [housing complexes] do need to take care of how to go about this in the future in a more proactive way … just making sure that [housing complexes] are more hygienic over a period of time,” Faisal said. “They should be making more of an effort to make sure everyone does feel more [safe].”

For students holding leases in housing complexes closer to campus, many are weighing the costs between trying to break their lease and continuing to pay full price for their vacated room. Nicole Moreno, a rising senior majoring in cinema and media studies, said breaking her lease may prove to be more costly than paying full price for her vacated room at West 27th Place.

“It will be probably more money to try and get out of [the lease] than to just continue paying [full rent],” Moreno said. 

The University is offering students the chance to speak with housing lawyers about how to legally proceed during these circumstances. According to Moreno, one of her roommates spoke with a lawyer who advised that they continue to pay rent. 

Students who face similar circumstances of making full rent payments despite vacating their residences are starting to see their options for moving forward dwindle. Popular alternatives such as subleasing also appear to be less desirable avenues for reducing monthly payments for vacant rooms. 

“Everyone wants to sublease wherever they can [to anyone], but then again, no one’s looking for places to live,” Moreno said. 

For students like Zhang, subleasing is not a possibility, as most of her belongings remain in her apartment while international travel bans prevent her from retrieving them. In combination with potential tenants’ health and safety concerns, Zhang said she believes the possibility for subleasing is limited. 

“Since we’re [in a pandemic], people are more worried about hygiene and living in someone else’s place, so I don’t feel like people are willing to rent a room right now,” Zhang said. “It’s not an easy thing to do under the current situation.”

The circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic place students in varied and complicated financial situations, Altmann said, and may be amplified for students with strained financial and legal resources.

“From my perspective as an international student, it’s really important to consider that not everyone has appropriate resources,” Altmann said. “There’s the stimulus check and the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act, but we international students literally don’t get any of it. I don’t think landlords should not get their rent … but I think the state or government should step in and make sure no one gets evicted or at least … [landlords get] their money from the city or the state and not from people who don’t have money.”

Housing complexes contacted by the Daily Trojan, including Tuscany Apartments, The Lorenzo and West 27th, declined to comment.