The University of Massachusetts Student Legal Services Office hosted a webinar Friday to provide information to students and parents on ending off-campuses leases following the University’s shift to remote learning.
Raquel Manzanares, the senior staff attorney at SLSO, led the talk, which was being held remotely through Zoom. Manzanares discussed the various consequences of ending a lease early and how students can use SLSO’s resources, before answering questions from attendees.
The webinar comes after the University’s suspension of in-person classes for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester in an attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19. While UMass has announced it will adjust student room and board fees for on-campus housing, students living off-campus may still be required to pay their full rent, depending on their tenancies.
For those who signed mutual leases with a landlord, Manzanares said ending a lease early would be “breaching your contract.”
“It is breaking your contract. It is breaking the promises that you made,” she said. “And, there are potential consequences to that, and there are ways to mitigate those consequences.”
Depending on the lease, there may be a clause that allows for tenants to move out of the property early. While the tenant is still required to pay rent, “the landlord has an obligation to try to fill the space, and if they are able to fill the space then your obligation to pay rent can come to an end.”
If they choose to vacate the property and the lease allows for it, tenants can institute a lease transfer where another tenant or group of tenants assume the responsibilities listed in the lease, such as paying the required rent.
Manzanares also said students can look into options of subleasing, which would entail the tenant allowing another person or group to live on the property and pay the rent. However, unlike a lease transfer, the tenant who signed the lease maintains all responsibilities.
“In that instance, your obligations to the landlord do not change, so you still have the obligation to pay the rent every month through the end of the contract no matter what happens with your sublessee,” Manzanares explained.
No matter which option tenants choose, Manzanares emphasized they communicate with their landlords. In engaging with landlords, Manzanares urged students to communicate through email exclusively or to send an email after meetings to confirm information discussed during conversations held in-person or over the phone. “There’s competing interests, so finding ways to work together, I would say, lead with kindness and lead with good faith and lead with sort of an open mind,” she said.
Certain leases may contain an “Act of God” clause, which states a tenant may be excused from a contract in the instance of a natural disaster or phenomenon if it “frustrates” the purpose of the lease. However, according to Manzanares, the Covid-19 pandemic may not relieve tenants of their leases because it is not preventing them from living in the property, even with UMass and colleges now learning remotely.
“Unless your lease has a clause that says something about the necessity of school being in session, the necessity of school being located in Amherst, the necessity of you continuing to be a student and be physically present, then [the purpose of the contract] has not been frustrated,” she said.
If a tenant does not pay rent, they are in breach of contract and may receive a “14-day notice to quit” from their landlord telling them to leave. However, Manzanares said it is illegal for landlords to physically prevent tenants from entering their property in Massachusetts, and the “only person, the only entity that can tell you to leave your apartment is a judge.”
Courts in the state are currently only hearing cases over the phone in emergency circumstances, Manzanares said, so students shouldn’t worry about immediate eviction.
Bernadette Stark, the director of SLSO, said in a message to the chat of the zoom meeting that for international students, “A civil dispute for non-payment of rent is not something that will impact your visa or your status as an international student.
“Only criminal court issues may have an impact. However, your landlord can still sue you for unpaid rent (same as a domestic student), but this would be a ‘civil suit’ with no immigration/visa consequences.”
Manzanares also noted that guarantors of leases may be liable with the tenants themselves depending on the contract.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Manzanares said students who are looking to sign leases in the summer for the 2020-21 academic year should read over any leases in their entirety and to come to SLSO if they need assistance with understanding the contract. She also advised students to talk with their parents and not panic that there won’t be an open place to live.
SLSO provides assistance to students or students needing confidential legal advice. The office also provides representation in “certain limited circumstances,” but does not represent students bringing claims against another student or the University. Students who wish to request services can file an intake.
Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @willmallas.