When Madeline Harmes renewed her yearlong lease with University Crossings last October, the Drexel University student imagined beginning her junior year living with her best friends.

But then the coronavirus pushed most of Drexel’s classes online for this fall. The 21-year-old worries about virus exposure and doesn’t see the value in paying $900-per-month for a space to do remote work. To save money, she has opted to live with her mom in Lancaster.

“I just can’t afford it,” said Harmes, who has been financially affected by the pandemic. “And I still have to pay for school itself.”

Harmes assumed that because of how drastically circumstances have changed, the landlords would allow her to terminate her lease, which begins in September. But the massive student rental corporation says she is legally obligated to uphold it, leaving her to find someone to take over the lease or foot the bill on an empty apartment.

As Philadelphia-area universities have announced plans for primarily remote classes this fall, student renters who signed leases with private, off-campus apartment complexes are finding themselves in an untenable financial bind.

Many students are legally obligated to honor leases for fall housing that they signed months ago, often before the pandemic began or based on their university’s initial plans for in-person courses. But now that many students are choosing to live with their parents, they are desperate to get out of leases for apartments they might never move into and can no longer afford.

Students vacated Temple in March when the coronavirus shut down colleges across the region. Many schools aren't bringing students back to campus for the fall.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Students vacated Temple in March when the coronavirus shut down colleges across the region. Many schools aren't bringing students back to campus for the fall.

Some apartment companies have eliminated late fees and created payment plans for struggling students, but lease terminations are few and far between, and experts say students have little recourse.

Most leases will not allow breaches even under extreme circumstances, said David Hoffman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

“It probably says it doesn’t matter why you breach, it doesn’t matter why you walk away, you owe us X amount,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman, who specializes in contract law, said that most leases created by national rental corporations are highly standardized, with no loopholes. Students’ options, without facing legal action, are paying the remainder of the rent due or finding a new tenant.

While students question why colleges can’t do more to intervene, the universities say they don’t have the legal authority.

Harmes’ apartment at University Crossings is owned by American Campus Communities, the country’s largest student renter corporation. Drexel has a partnership with the company and allows first- and second-year students to live there to fulfill the two-year on-campus living requirement. Harmes has gone to Drexel for help, but the university told her there’s nothing it can do since it’s a private contract.

Drexel signage near University Crossings, student housing in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, August 11, 2020.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Drexel signage near University Crossings, student housing in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, August 11, 2020.

“But shouldn’t you have a say, shouldn’t you be able to stand up for your students since you’re [encouraging] us to live here?” said Harmes. “But they don’t, and they’re not.”

American Campus Communities did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Drexel said the university is “in regular communication with its housing partners to keep them apprised of the University’s return-to-campus plans.”

Apartment corporations say they’re working with their student renters, but will not allow lease terminations because it will hurt the companies financially.

University City’s The Radian, a luxury student apartment complex on Penn’s property, said its parent company cannot afford to let students out of their leases, but would “work cooperatively” to help students sublet vacant spaces. A spokesperson for Penn said off-campus leases are “private contracts between the students and the lessors and do not involve the University.”

The Edge, a student apartment complex near West Chester University, said it is waiving sublet fees for students who are no longer returning, but will not allow lease terminations.

International students are no exception. Emiliano Garza, a sophomore at Drexel, cannot return to Philly from Honduras because of border restrictions. Yet he is still liable for the yearlong, $1,400-per-month lease he signed with University City’s Evo at Cira Central South in February that begins later this month.

His landlord says his only option is to find a subletter, but that’s difficult to coordinate from another country and comes with a $1,000 fee — money Garza doesn’t have after his parents lost work.

“I understand it’s a contract, but the circumstances right now are very different from any other time when a person is trying to get out of the contract,” Garza said.

Julia Tanier, a 19-year-old Temple student, signed a lease with two friends earlier this year, before the pandemic, to start in August. But now that Temple moved her courses online, she is taking a gap year and living with her mom in East Falls to save money.

The subletter she had found to take over the $475-per-month room in North Philly backed out last week. She and her mom, Laurel Colvin, expect they’ll be on the hook for rent even though Tanier will never step foot in the space.

“It’s low enough rent that it’s not going to break us,” said Colvin. “But it just seems so wrong.”

With landlords and universities offering little help, some frustrated tenants have asked the state attorney general to mediate negotiations.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement that his office would “attempt to mediate complaints for those who believe they are being held to their leases unlawfully for the fall semester,” and recently helped a Drexel student by getting a management company to push back the lease’s start date.

(L-R) Riley McGowan, Katie Fox and Ally Drames are the three students who founded the Advocates for WCU Renters group, a student-led coalition that advocates for student renters and acts as a liaison between university officials, politicians, and the students.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
(L-R) Riley McGowan, Katie Fox and Ally Drames are the three students who founded the Advocates for WCU Renters group, a student-led coalition that advocates for student renters and acts as a liaison between university officials, politicians, and the students.

Shapiro’s office has received 26 complaints from student renters about their landlords, a spokesperson said. Six complaints have been mediated and satisfied, two are partially satisfied, and 18 are unresolved.

Other students have taken it upon themselves. Three West Chester students, Katie Fox, Ally Drames, and Riley McGowan, created the group Advocates for WCU Renters, to be a liaison among students, university officials, and local and state representatives. Through a Facebook group, they’ve kept students informed on their rights and written letters to landlords. Their efforts influenced the university to allocate $2 million of CARES Act funding for off-campus rent relief.

At West Chester, where 60% of students live off campus, students are not only worried about their fall leases, Fox said, but also the spring. Some want out of their fall leases, but worry that if in-person classes resume for the spring, they’ll have few housing options.

“Students are stuck,” she said.