Since UCSB and SBCC moved to remote instruction earlier this month, their respective Facebook pages have been a sea of subleaser requests for their off campus homes in Isla Vista.
“Triple in (my) apartment is available for spring and summer,” one post read. “It’s FULLY FURNISHED, and utility is included. You don’t have to care about anything. Please message me for more details. I’m leasing out of this spot ASAP.”
While the steady stream of offers is matched by similar pleas for last minute lodging, there are some students desperate to leave whose vacancies may have to remain just that – vacant. Now, as Spring Break draws to a close this week, IV tenants face a difficult choice: to stay or to go.
“The problem is that pretty much everyone is having trouble with their landlords and figuring out how to somehow pay rent next month,” said a representative from the Isla Vista Housing Crisis Coalition.
Jordan Pink thought he would finish out his second year at UCSB alongside his friends. Then COVID-19 hit Santa Barbara. Soon, Mr. Pink’s on campus job, income and plans for spring quarter fell through, including his house in IV.
“I asked our landlord about alleviating rent in any way, as my dad and myself are out of work due to the virus,” he said. “They sent me a PDF of something… basically (it said) we have no legal reason to cancel the lease, but they can waive the late fees, which helps a bit.”
To lawfully back out of their leases, tenants must be able to cite one of two legal terms in their contracts: force majeure or frustration of purpose. Force majeure results from an act of God, where, through no fault of either party, it has become impossible or impracticable to fulfill the obligations required under the contract. Likewise, frustration of purpose stems from the inability to perform an intended action due to an unforeseen event. In this case, tenants intending to pay their rent can no longer do so amidst the growing public health crisis.
Evidence of either of these clauses would allow tenants to terminate their leases without any legal repercussions. Unfortunately, they are rarely found within IV rental agreements and are more common in commercial contracts.
“I haven’t talked to a single student yet that has found such clauses, but it’s possible,” said Ron Perry, UCSB Associated Students Legal Resource Center Staff Attorney. “Laypeople ask, ‘Isn’t it an act of God? It’s out of my control. Shouldn’t I be able to relieve my obligations?’ Well, the short answer… is no.
“As a general rule, a pandemic is not a legal basis for terminating a lease. Most tenants are under obligation to pay rent until the end of the agreement.”
Rather than forgoing the remainder of what’s due, many landlords have instead allowed their tenants to sublet at no extra cost. Usually prohibited in IV lease agreements, subletting can be a viable alternative for those who decide returning to Santa Barbara is too much of a health threat. Yet even this option comes with its own risks.
“When you sublet, you become a landlord,” said Mr. Perry. “That has a lot of consequences in itself. If the toilet gets stopped up, your subletter won’t call property management, they’ll call you and then you’ll have to deal with it.”
For other tenants, subletting may not be an option to begin with. As IV quickly becomes a ghost town, at the advice of university officials pleading students to stay home, the amount of willing subletters decreases.
“How am I supposed to find someone to take over when everyone is packing up and leaving?,” said Destiny Diaz, a second year student at UCSB. “I can’t afford to pay $900 a month for rent when I am no longer receiving income from my campus job.”
Left with no other option, tenants like Ms. Diaz and Mr. Pink grapple with the idea of withholding payment. If tenants make that choice, however, they risk incurring costs on not only themselves, but also others contractually bound by the agreement.
“More than half of UCSB students have asked their parents to be cosigners on their rental agreements,” said Mr. Perry. “One of the risks of bailing is that the landlord could go after their cosigner parents.”
Refusing to pay also puts undue pressure on the landlords themselves. With mortgages and bills to pay of their own, most landlords cannot afford to excuse agreements and absorb loss of rents, Mr. Perry explained. Bailing on a lease is therefore larger than the tenant alone – it’s a game of dominos.
Still, backing out might seem like the best choice in a time of crisis. At least, for the time being.
On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to prevent eviction of commercial and residential tenants through May 31 so long as on or before April 21, those tenants provide a detailed written notice to their property owner demonstrating their inability to make rent payments due to COVID-19. As an unincorporated area of Santa Barbara, IV falls under this ordinance, relieving some stress of students desperate to leave.
Though this solution is more like a band-aid than a permanent fix. Mr. Perry pointed out a moratorium on eviction doesn’t prevent landlords from collecting rent. Whether it’s now or six months from now, whatever is due will still be owed, he said. If tenants can’t pay within the agreed repayment period, the result can still be eviction, affecting rental agreements going forward.
“We expect the landlords to first take the security deposit and then send a bill for the balance that’s owed,” said Mr. Perry. “(Not paying) that can then affect your credit and ability to rent. Future landlords will want to know about your last rental. If it’s an eviction, that can stay on your record forever.”
When asked if evictions could be brushed off as the unforeseen consequence of pandemic, Mr. Perry likened the situation to the 2008 Housing Crisis.
“The closest analogy I can think of is the last Great Recession with the housing collapse,” he said. “I’ve been a tenant attorney for 30 years now, and I didn’t find a whole lot of sympathy on the part of property owners the last go around.”
But acting on this precedent alone is hardly a sign of what’s really to come, Mr. Perry continued. Only time will tell the legal ramifications COVID-19 could bring. Instead, he urges people to prioritize their health above all else, as that is what will matter in the long run.
“The legal consequences won’t matter if you and the people you care about are not alive,” he said. “All the legal consequences are secondary. Be safe. Conduct yourself in a way as if you do have (COVID-19) and then address the legal questions of all of this after.”
In the meantime, some organizations have stepped in to provide some short term relief, giving tenants the confidence to choose health over financial and legal concerns. To help subsidize costs related to displacement by the coronavirus, the Isla Vista Tenants Union has created an Emergency Fund. While the fund doesn’t address concerns over lease agreements, it does provide those who apply with a much needed buffer.
“We will cover things like the cost of storage units, hotels, gas, travel back home, rental vehicles, and hiring moving companies,” said Sabina Manzhausen, IVTU Technology Director.
Using funds set aside for spring quarter, as well as support from other UCSB organizations, IVTU will provide each recipient with at least $300. Once funds are distributed fairly, tenants may have the opportunity to apply again for what’s left over.
“A lot of people, especially students with jobs in the community and on campus, are struggling to make ends meet. After UCSB moved online, students are choosing to go home during this time to quarantine with their families versus in Isla Vista.
“We can’t help students get out of their leases, but we wanted to use funds that we already had saved to help students in a different way…We just want to provide relief during this time.”