Andrew Dolenga should be sitting in his apartment in East Lansing, Michigan, finishing up his last spring at Michigan State University. Instead, he's spending his day doing online classes from his parents' home in suburban Detroit, forced away from campus by the coronavirus pandemic.
But unlike students who lived in university housing, who got refunds on their rent payments when they were forced to leave, Dolenga and thousands of other students are still paying rent on empty apartments and houses in university towns all across the country.
Locked into contracts with independent landlords that expire either at the end of the school year or in August, the students find themselves paying for empty spaces.
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The Detroit Free Press talked to 18 college students in towns all across Michigan — Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Mount Pleasant, Big Rapids, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids — who are renting apartments.
None of those students said their landlords were giving breaks on rent or ending leases early. A handful of students said they had been told late fees on payments would be waived. Ten of them said they had received emails or letters from landlords reminding them rent was due.
There are practically no remedies for any of the students. They aren’t renting from their college, so there’s nothing the school can do. The state has put in place orders so that private landlords can’t evict them for not paying, but most aren’t there anyway and the landlords can still go after the back rent down the road.
In reality, the students are just like any other renter anywhere, except they are paying thousands of dollars for what is, in essence, a fancy storage locker for their stuff.
That's the opposite of what's happening for students who lived in campus housing. Universities across the state are issuing refunds — some topping $1,000 — to students who are no longer living on campus.
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Ready to graduate
Dolenga, a senior scheduled to graduate in December, had a lump sum payment of $2,000 — four months' rent — due just as the COVID-19 virus disruption hit. He moved home to Rochester March 23, five days after Michigan State told students it was going online only. That gave him and his roommates time to ponder just staying in place. But with his job canceled for the school year (Dolenga is a research assistant) and common areas in the complex like the gym shut down, there was no reason to stay.
There was one silver lining: Dolenga and his roommates shut off the utilities, saving themselves a little bit of money.
Some students are paying rent on empty apartments not because they went home, but because they are sheltering with others.
Right after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her stay-at-home order, Central Michigan University senior Hannah Fox moved in with friends.
"My roommates all went home, and I wanted to stay in Mount Pleasant for several reasons," she said. "One being that I traveled for spring break and my mom works at an assisted living home, so going home wasn't an option for me because I couldn't expose her to anything. Another being that for the first week or so of quarantine, I was able to go to my job on campus. And my mental health is just better here than at home.
"But I didn't want to be completely alone, so my friends let me move in with them when Gov. Whitmer called the stay-at-home order."
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Fox got an email from her landlord reminding her of the $400 she owes for the one month she has left on her lease. She thinks landlords should have been flexible.
"I think that landlords should at least be willing to talk with their tenants and work through things on a case-by-case basis. For example, my move-out date is in a month anyway, so it would be nice if I had the option to just move out now and save a month's worth of rent."
Moving home seemed like the right thing to do
The plan was simple. Zachary Isenberg, a 20-year-old from the Detroit suburbs, would spend this academic year as a student at Lansing Community College and then next year enroll at Michigan State University. With a friend at Michigan State, Isenberg moved into an apartment in Lansing. All seemed to be going swimmingly until COVID-19 hit and everything was canceled.
Isenberg returned home to West Bloomfield. His dad, Mike Isenberg, thought that would be the safest course of action. With rent of $1,050 per month, Mike Isenberg called the apartment complex to see whether there were any accommodations being made in regard to rent.
Nope, he was told, unless Mike lost his job. He was told Zachary's home was in his apartment, even though it had been marketed as being for students.
"I know there is a legal right for them to do this," Mike Isenberg said. "I wonder if there's a moral (responsibility) to do something different?"
It's not just in Michigan where students are frustrated.
Consider Clemson University in South Carolina.
Gina ValeCruz, a senior there, is planning on staying at her off-campus apartment through the semester.
She said she hopes to see rent discounts from the complex since nearly all of the extras like the pool and gym are either closed for health purposes or unfinished.
Plus, ValeCruz said the apartment markets itself to students, providing services like a shuttle bus and printing services.
“It's interesting that they've chosen to cater their whole atmosphere towards the student environment, yet for a situation like this ... they aren't making any sort of amends.”
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Zoe Nicholson of The Greenville News in South Carolina contributed to this report.
Follow David Jesse on Twitter: @reporterdavidj