Commentary: COVID-19 Brings Another Set of Problems – Student Housing

By Elizabeth Cho

“Hi! I saw your post about looking for an apartment and if you’re still looking and you’re interested, I have an entire apartment that I need 4 people to take over for this year! It comes fully furnished…” And it goes on and on with countless adjectives to try and make this apartment more desirable. So desirable that I want to give it away.

For the past few weeks, my roommates and I have done everything in our power to hand over our apartment to someone else. I have joined multiple Facebook groups, contacted everyone I know, and have reached out to over twenty (reaching thirty now) different groups of people. But we have found no one. And we are not alone.

Students everywhere are struggling to get out of their lease contracts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is for many reasons, the most prominent being that they can no longer afford to pay for an apartment, especially if they are not going to be living there. Most, if not all, schools have transferred their fall semesters and quarters online, and the practical (and cheapest) solution for students would be to just stay home.

But student housing apartments have not made that easy. For many different apartments in Davis, they do not allow you to pay three months’ rent or the typical fee required to break a lease. For a lot of us, the only option is to transfer our leases over to someone else.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the demand is extremely low in comparison to the supply. When you look at housing groups on Facebook, there are 50 posts trying to get rid of their apartment for every one post looking for one. The ones who are looking are bombarded with dozens of desperate students, hopeful that the former will take their offer.

This has created a huge problem for the housing situation in Davis. A fellow student that I am acquainted with has also been trying to get rid of their apartment for even longer than I have. They were significantly displaced due to COVID-19 and are financially unable to pay for an apartment. If they can not break their lease, their family will be forced to pay thousands that they do not have. In a recent conversation with them, they were saying how their parents are considering taking on extra jobs just to cover the cost. If they are unable to find any, well, “I don’t want to even think about what that would mean for my family.”

The City of Berkeley is another college town that is struck with a similar housing crisis. On June 30, the Berkeley City Council adopted Ordinance No. 7,720-N.S., which “allows tenants to terminate leases early without incurring any penalties in the event of COVID-19 related reasons for delayed payment of rent, or where the tenants are students at an academic institution that has cancelled or limited in-person classes. Tenants may negotiate the terms of early termination of their leases.” At first glance, I thought that this would mean that students in Berkeley could break their leases and ultimately save lots of money. Another Davis student thought the same.

This other student created a petition for the City of Davis to adopt a similar ordinance. The petition already has hundreds of signatures and when I first heard about it, I was eager to spread the word. I sent it to people I knew, spread it on social media, and even spoke about it at a Davis City Council meeting. And while the petition (and the Berkeley City Council’s ordinance) sounds very appealing to students, there is one crucial point that is not highlighted.

Yes, you can break your lease. But according to the UC Berkeley Attorney for Students Mark Lucia, “even if students terminate their leases under the recent Berkeley emergency ordinance, the landlord still has the right to pursue unpaid/lost rent over the duration of the lease term under state law.” For those whose leases have not started they may be able to terminate it without having to pay for a year’s worth of rent, but that has not yet been confirmed.

So, essentially, students are back to square one. Even if Davis passed an ordinance and we could break our leases, we and/or our families might still have to pay for rent anyway. The options are limited and it seems like the most likely outcome will be for many of us to just pay up.

Although this situation puts students and families at a severe disadvantage, I can only imagine how landlords and their employees feel. I could not help but feel bad when I was attempting to negotiate with the management of my apartment to break my lease. They were incredibly apologetic and sympathetic, but their hands are tied. And it’s difficult to be upset at someone whose job could be on the line.

But what is there to do? No one could have predicted the chaos that came with COVID-19. No one could have predicted that COVID-19 would happen, except for Bill Gates I suppose. My roommates and I didn’t think that, during this past winter, the apartments we were excitedly looking at would soon become sources of stress and burden.

COVID-19 has forever changed our lives. Jobs that can not be done virtually are diminishing, people are dying, and there is not a single day that goes by that you can not think of COVID. If you picked a stranger from a crowd of people, they could probably list dozens of ways COVID-19 has directly affected them.

For students, there comes the additional burden of having to shift from in-person classes to online. We have lost the personal connection that we can get from interacting with others, which will affect younger students the most. We are affected by time zones, environments not suitable for learning, and the stress that comes from being alive in 2020. And student housing has only added to that stress.

While the future is very unknown for us students, at least we can take comfort in the fact that we are all going through this together. But hey, let me know if you’re interested in a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment that comes fully furnished and has a pool, 24/7 gym, and tons of other stuff…

Elizabeth Cho is an Intern with the Vanguard Court Watch program and a UC Davis Student

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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  1. Ron Glick

    I was saddened to see that the City Council didn’t even agendize the issue on the calendar.

    Don’t pay up, fight! Make them sue you, make them evict you. Make it as expensive and difficult for them as possible if they refuse to negotiate a settlement.

  2. Tia Will


    Thanks for the article. You are right, most of us are stuck in this terrible place together. My son and I bought a house together during his last year in college certain he would be employed during his first post-grad year and knowing he could rent out his spare bedrooms. The plan worked beautifully. He managed to build a lucrative one-man business, rent out his rooms and was thriving…until COVID hit and his business was gone literally overnight. Also due to COVID, his renters were gone. He could have held the last one to the remainder of his lease but chose to just let him off. What good is trying to extract money from those who are worse off than yourself?

    You see my son knows how fortunate he is in this illustration of the disparate effects of COVID on different socioeconomic groups. I am blessed to be able to cover his share of the mortgage payments until he can rebuild his income…whenever that is. My thoughts are with all of those who have not fared so well in our current system of entrenched inequality both of opportunity and outcome. Our governments, at all levels, need to be stepping up to help those who have been most affected by this country (world) wide natural disaster.

  3. Ron Glick

    Hooray, for Todd Edelman who called into public comment and asked the CC to put it on the agenda. Of course they ignored Todd and the renters who called in earlier to public comment and didn’t put it on the agenda. Not one CC member spoke up. I’m so disappointed by all of them.

    1. Alan Miller

      RG, what can they do?  Many landlords are being reasonable.  I’ve heard many downtown business leases have been halved.  But if it’s a new building, the financing won’t allow that – for an example of a thousand examples.  Each situation is different.  The CC can’t pass a law to void contracts and bankrupt every apartment complex.  And apartment complexes in Davis have always had students by the [hey don’t blame me, you thought of that word in your own head].

      there are 50 posts trying to get rid of their apartment for every one post looking for one.

      The irony is stark, with all the “Campus Democrats” talking up the need for ‘affordable’ housing last night.  The exact opposite ‘housing crisis’ from what this article is stating.  I’ll bet you can negotiate a pretty sweet deal for ’20-’21 right now.  Will there really ever be the student demand when online classes have been around for a year and honed?  Not only are students scared, the investors in Lincoln 40 and Post Office 131 are probably wondering if their investment ends up empty, or rents crash and they can’t rent at numbers that will return the investment.  All depends on the Covid-19, and the future of college learning, and how much cash is left in the average people’s pockets when this is all over.

      1. Ron Glick

        They took the risk so why should we feel sorry for them for getting stuck and then trying to play hardball sticking it to the kids. First the landlords should have reserves but if they don’t they have other tools they can tap. They can ask for forbearance. If they have equity they can refinance. They can renegotiate the lease with the tenants. If they have multiple properties they could deliver by selling some. If nothing else they can file for bankruptcy protection.

        I don’t know what the CC should do but ignoring the problem and not even asking to study it was disappointing. It was so Trump like. They wouldn’t want to ruin their summer break by dealing with issues arising from the pandemic.

        1. Ron Glick

          I’m innocent auto-correct made me do it.

          Reminds me of a greasy spoon I know called “The Eel River Cafe.” The locals called it the Real Liver Cafe.


  4. Alan Miller

    DG this author is a great writer.  Also she displayed empathy for the ‘other’ side; in other words, is willing to research and understand both sides of an issue.  I suggest you give her a raise and have her branch out from issues she knows personally — to being your top key field reporter.  Just a suggestion.  I had thought good writing and good journalism was a lost art.

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