As schools and businesses worldwide have closed in response to COVID-19, many communities have been left in despair. Even before the pandemic, college students were an extremely vulnerable community facing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial hardships. These conditions only worsened with COVID-19’s impact on our schools, jobs, families, and communities. Students who were living on campus were asked by their school to vacate their dorms and return home. However, for students who lived off-campus, returning home was a greater financial burden.
For the majority of students, off-campus housing involves signing a 12-month lease. Most of us assumed we would be living in our homes for the length of our lease, but COVID-19 and the closing of our universities forced us to leave our college towns and move back home with our families.
As a result, students who moved back home faced an impossible choice: Pay monthly rent for a place where they don’t live or pay a ridiculously expensive fee for breaking their lease.
I was one of the many students facing difficulties with my off-campus housing after my university transitioned to online learning in March. Within just a few days I found myself having to choose between returning home to shelter in place with my family or unnecessarily staying alone in Sacramento. While I chose to return home because my classes were moving online and my family’s business needed extra support, my lease on my off-campus apartment wouldn’t expire until December 2020 — a week after I am set to graduate.
When I spoke to the leasing manager of my apartment complex about my situation I was told that I would have to pay a fine of $3,567 to break out of my lease early.
Employed or not, this is an extremely large amount of money for a college student to pay on such short notice. Like most college students — I didn’t have a spare $3,500 that I could afford to lose.
Throughout my education, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive financial support from my family. However, COVID-19 caused our small family-owned business to see decreased sales and increased expenses. My family was having a hard enough time covering business expenses, mortgage, and other day-to-day necessities, let alone pay $3,500 to break a lease.
After a few months and a lot of credit card debt, I was able to pay out my lease. Unfortunately, many of my peers were not given that option and were forced to continue paying rent for months.
Having lease payments on apartments and houses we didn’t live in added to the financial burdens students like myself faced. Nationally, 75 percent of student jobs were cancelled, delayed, or moved to remote work.
It’s been six months since the pandemic took over our lives and students don’t have any more agency than when this began. Over the course of half a year, thousands of students have had to make life-altering decisions. Breaking a lease in order to safeguard our health and financial well-being shouldn’t be a hard fought debate.
Stories like mine are common, and although Newsom issued an eviction moratorium, it doesn’t do enough for students who still can’t pay rent in their college town amid the pandemic. That’s why California students and organizations are asking Governor Newsom to allow students to terminate their leases without penalty or ramifications. Use Young Invincibles’ tool to urge the governor to grant California college students more relief.
Ruth is a first-generation senior at Sacramento State University where she is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Deaf Studies. On her campus, Ruth is an active member of several political, ethnic, and social clubs as well as the Vice President to Students for Reproductive Justice.