Online petition protests lease policy for student housing – OCRegister

1July 2020

A Cal State Fullerton student posted an online petition asking the operator of an off-campus housing complex to let residents out of their fall 2020 leases because instruction will be mostly online this fall.

Many students no longer can afford to pay rent at the University House Fullerton complex because they lost income due to COVID-19, said Courtney Chandler, 19, of Lake Elsinore, who posted the petition on in late May. And others prefer to save money by living with their parents since they won’t need to be near campus.

“I was hoping that they would give us an option other than finding someone to take over our lease,” said Chandler, a communications major, referring to Scion Group, a Chicago-based real estate firm that operates University House and 86 other student housing projects in the nation, including three in Southern California.

“I am in a fortunate position that if I had to live there, I could still afford it,” said Chandler, who managed to keep her off-campus job. “However, I know that many are not and have lost their source of income due to COVID-19.”

The problem is plaguing students and housing providers across the country as colleges and universities grapple with how to reopen in the fall. A survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that at least 40% of Southern California colleges and universities will be mostly online this fall.

Students signed leases for off-campus housing as long ago as October, well before the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down college campuses.

Scion is allowing students to get out of their leases only if they find another person to sublet their space, a common practice in the student housing industry, a company spokesman said.

But economic realities prevent the company from simply allowing every student to cancel their leases, said Jay Pearlman, Scion senior vice president for advisory services. Scion and other housing providers need revenue to operate the community and pay property taxes, payroll, insurance and other expenses.

“We doing our best to balance our empathy for our customers with our obligations to our mortgage lender, the tax authorities, our employees, our vendors and the project’s investors, which are mostly retiree pensions,” Pearlman said.

“We understand and sympathize with those that feel their apartment near campus will be less valuable to them when they learn classes are going to be mostly online to begin the fall semester,” he added. “We’re continuing to sign contracts with new residents to fill vacancies, and hope that many of these students will still join our community for the upcoming term.”

More than 600 students, parents and instructors had signed Chandler’s petition objecting to that policy as of Tuesday, June 30. Many argued management should at least provide an option for students to pay a fee to get out of their leases.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and there should be an option to terminate our leases,” one student commented.

“It’s not fair during this pandemic to not even try to compromise for those who are trying to get out of their lease,” wrote another. “It’s very hard to find people to take over because most of the population is out of jobs anyway.”

University House Fullerton is Scion’s biggest student housing complex in California, with 1,189 beds, according to its website. The company also operates The Palms on University, a 528-bed site at UC Riverside; and Lark Sacramento, a 726-bed site at Sacramento State University.

The firm will be the manager of The Harbour, a new on-campus complex at Orange Coast College, which will open in August. Scion recently announced it’s letting OCC students who signed fall leases to cancel by Sunday, July 5. But the offer is limited to The Harbour, which is owned by Orange Coast College and the Coast Community College District, not Scion.

“The Harbour at Orange Coast College is not owned by The Scion Group or its affiliates,” Pearlman said. “Scion is the contracted property manager.”

Courtney Chandler (Courtesy of Courtney Chandler)

Chandler decided to post her petition after University House management announced they were donating $25,000 to UNCF, which supports scholarship funds for Black students and historically Black colleges and universities.

“I saw a comment saying that if they could do this donation, then they could let us out of our leases. So it motivated me to make a petition,” Chandler said.

She shared the petition with a few people, and soon, word spread through Instagram, Facebook and elsewhere. A Northern California resident contacted Chandler and asked her to modify the petition to apply to all Scion properties.

Chandler said her contract states residents “will remain fully responsible for the total rent,” adding that no exceptions can be made for “financial hardship, academic changes, family matters, medical issues, roommate conflict or any other reason.”

Petition signer Alexis Dosamantes, 21, of Bakersfield, said she has spoken with more than 60 people while trying to find someone to take over the $13,548-a-year lease she signed in October. So far, she hasn’t had any takers.

Dosamantes lost her job as a freelance makeup artist in February and can’t afford the rent. She also received a notice that her financial aid and student loans will be cut next year.

“I’ve expressed that to them several times,” she said. “But the lease says, no matter what, no matter if you’re sick, you’re still legally liable for paying that amount.”

UPDATE: This post was revised to add comments from a Scion spokesman and to correct name of a scholarship fund to which Scion is donating $25,000.


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