Students, landlords struggle over contract cancellations

The Brabury, a BYU-approved apartment complex in Provo, sits devoid of activity on March 19. Students and landlords are clashing over contract cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Preston Crawley)

BYU student Annie Cutler was hit by a car and broke her leg on Feb. 13. She relied on her roommates to take care of her while she healed from her injuries, but when COVID-19 hit, Cutler’s roommates-turned-caretakers all moved out.

Cutler, still unable to care for herself, went home. She tried to cancel her CollegePlace contact, but her landlord refused her request, even when Cutler provided the letters from her doctor and academic counselor the landlord had requested.

Many BYU-contracted housing tenants have sought release from their contracts since the onslaught of COVID-19, but despite the university’s suggestion, not all landlords or property managers have been willing to let their tenants go. Off-campus housing residents who asked to be released from their contracts are starting to see the outcomes of their requests.

For Cutler, her landlord’s refusal to release her meant she would have to take matters into her own hands. She moved her things out of her apartment and removed her credit card from the CollegePlace online payment portal. So far, nothing has happened, and she hasn’t been contacted by CollegePlace. “It’s just interesting how every place is handling it differently. It’s a little frustrating.”

Her frustration is shared by BYU student Annika Woodward, who works at Utah Valley Hospital and has a roommate with asthma. Because Woodward felt she couldn’t quarantine effectively while sharing a bedroom and bathroom, she bought a new contract at another apartment complex and moved out.

She now pays rent on both her Moon apartment and her new one. “There’s this whole social media and news thing about health care workers being heroes,” she said. “They’re trying to celebrate all the health care workers, but that’s it. There’s really no relief actually being given to any of them.”

She said Vision Real Estate, which manages Moon Apartments, never responded to Woodward’s contact attempts. This “radio silence,” as Woodward called it, was not atypical. Though Vision Real Estate set up an online application so tenants could explain why their situation merited release from their contract, Woodward said she doesn’t know of anyone who received a response.

Vision Real Estate President Jeremiah Maughan confirmed the existence of the online application and expressed concern that any requests or other attempts at contacting the office might have slipped through the cracks. There are many ways to contact Vision Real Estate, Maughan said, including email, phone call and text.

Maughan said as a property manager, Vision Real Estate is constantly trying to balance the needs of owners with the needs of residents.

“Some owners have a lot of financial flexibility, but most don’t. Most are just trying to cover their mortgage,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of residents who have tried to exploit the situation. But we’ve seen some individuals who have some legitimate issues as a result of the situation, and so we work with everybody on a case-by-case basis.”

Maughan said the company has used published arbitration decisions as a precedent for which requests to grant.

Woodward’s decision did not seem to fit those precedents since she now pays rent on both the Moon apartment and her new one.

BYU’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution continues to hold housing-related mediations for students in situations like Cutler’s and Woodward’s. The Center has already held over 200 housing-related mediations, but not all of them end in resolution.

BYU’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution has been mediating housing conflicts for tenants who moved home from school due to COVID-19. (Preston Crawley)

Such was the case for Liberty Square tenant Maddie Rands. Rands lost one of her jobs due to COVID-19, leaving her unable to pay rent. Rands decided to cancel her contract and move home.

She took her case to mediation, where she said she was disappointed by the behavior of the Liberty Square managers who attended.

“They complained the whole time that I was not willing to work with them, even after I suggested multiple proposals,” Rands said. “They rejected everything I suggested and called me angry and noncompliant, but when I asked what they would suggest, their big ‘compromise’ was a whopping 5% off rent.”

Rands said Liberty Square withdrew from mediation and threatened to evict her, remove her property from the apartment, and destroy her credit through the collections process.

“They said stuff like, ‘We have families we need to support and people like you are trying to jeopardize that.’ As if a 21-year-old baby like me who makes $9.50 an hour and can barely afford rent has any sort of power to hurt this huge company,” Rands said. “I wish I was exaggerating. It was pathetic.”

When a mediation ends in non-resolution, either party can take the case to arbitration, where a judge hears and makes a ruling on the case. Of the 10 published arbitration cases, one of which handled claims from two tenants, six tenants have been released from their contracts under various conditions, while five have not.

Once the first arbitration decisions were released, Rands realized others in her situation, who were hurting financially but were not in any physical danger from COVID-19, were not being released from their contracts. She decided not to push her case further but expressed her disappointment in Redstone Residential, which manages Liberty Square, for prioritizing revenue over residents.

Redstone Residential CEO Grant Collard did not respond to requests for comment.

Bryan Johnson expressed a similar sentiment after his daughter’s fight to be released from her contract. “It’s all profit driven, you know? It’s all about the money.”

Johnson’s daughter attends BYU and lived at Alpine Village during the Winter 2020 Semester. She has cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease requiring frequent breathing treatments and medication. Because her roommate’s job prevented her from social distancing, Johnson’s daughter decided to move home to protect herself.

After moving his daughter home, Johnson said he contacted Redstone Residential about cancelling her contract. They said she didn’t qualify for contract cancellation, despite her chronic illness.

“I did a little bit of research on Redstone and realized that we’re dealing with this huge corporate entity that I had no idea was as big as it was,” he said. “It’s kind of like a David and Goliath type thing where I don’t necessarily have all the time and resources to drag this out.”

Since Redstone manages so much off-campus housing in Provo, Johnson said his daughter was worried she would be “blacklisted” and rendered unable to find housing at school if she pursued her case.

They decided to schedule a mediation anyway, but after the first arbitration decision came out, in which a tenant was released from her contract because of “a direct and imminent threat to Tenant’s personal health,” Redstone called Johnson and released his daughter from her contract.

BYU Law Student Julie Brooks, who organized the petition to release BYU students from their housing contracts, was also freed from her contract after the first arbitration decisions came out. Brooks had offered her landlord a compromise: The landlord could keep her deposit and April rent, but Brooks wouldn’t have to pay any rent after April or any utilities after March.

Her landlord agreed to the request on the condition that she sign a nondisclosure agreement, which she refused to do, feeling such agreements exploit student tenants.

“The whole point of signing a nondisclosure agreement is if they compromise one on one with everyone and they have everyone sign a nondisclosure agreement, then they can get as much money as possible out of every single individual student,” Brooks said.

After that, Brooks and her landlord took the case to mediation. The mediation, Brooks said, was unsuccessful, and would have gone to arbitration had the first rulings not come out.

Since Brooks has asthma, and her roommate was working in healthcare, she believed based on the first two rulings that arbitration would rule in her favor. She told her landlord that if the case went to arbitration, she would demand a complete refund of all dues paid since she moved out. Her landlord then accepted her original compromise.

UVU student Margaret Mackin lives at CollegePlace Woodland, which is managed by Redstone Residential. When she was furloughed from her job as a server at a restaurant, she asked to be released from her contract so she could move home to Idaho and save money.

CollegePlace Woodland told her that the complex owners had instructed them not to release any tenants from their contracts.

“I’ve stayed in Utah,” she said. “I can’t justify not staying in the place when paying rent there.”

Mackin couldn’t take her case to mediation with the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution because she isn’t a BYU student, but she said her roommate attempted to take her own housing case to mediation and was refused by CollegePlace Woodland.

“CollegePlace would ignore their calls, wouldn’t call them back and refused to entertain the idea of mediation,” Mackin said.

Mackin said it was frustrating that even though she and her roommates paid rent on time every month and were model tenants, CollegePlace Woodland wasn’t willing to offer them any relief in their time of need.

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