College students are stuck paying rent for empty properties. Here's what they can do

Many students have moved home because of the coronavirus pandemic. But rent is still due.
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By Madeline Merinuk

With the closures of college campuses across the nation because of the coronavirus pandemic, many students have been forced out of their dorms or have vacated apartments to move back home.

Because of this, many students are left paying rent for properties they're no longer living in — and, students who have signed leases for the 2020-2021 school year are left wondering if they'll even be able to move into their house or apartment, depending on whether their school decides to hold the semester online or in person. And on top of all this, many college students are ineligible for coronavirus relief checks.

Dhanesh Ranaweera, a junior at Penn State University, told TODAY that although his landlord has decreased utility costs because of the pandemic, rent hasn't been lowered or frozen. Regardless of whether Penn State holds classes in person or not, he'll still be living in his apartment because he's already paying for it.

Unfortunately, for students who are out of work or unable to have their parents or guardians assist them in paying for housing, an option like Ranaweera's may not be feasible. If you're struggling to pay rent, you may be interested in speaking with your landlord about a rent deferral or even a rent freeze.

Approaching a conversation with your landlord can seem daunting, especially if you're young and inexperienced. TODAY spoke to Jeff Friedman, an attorney at Hall Estill Attorneys at Law in Denver, to get tips on how to approach the matter.

1. Remember that landlords don't want to take you to court.

Before approaching your landlord, it's helpful to put yourself in their shoes. "They're not going to want to have a fight and spend legal fees," said Friedman, especially in a time when people are trying to preserve their finances. Remember that they're just trying to do their job, and if you come to the conversation prepared, they might be more willing to work out a deal with you.

2. Read over your lease to see if there's a "force majeure" or impossibility clause.

Force majeure is a French phrase that technically translates to "superior force." In this context, you can read it as something that is "out of your control," according to Friedman. So a clause like this in your lease specifies what a landlord will do when a situation comes about that is out of the tenant's control. Because this provision, if present, can say a number of things, it's important to look at the language.

If you don't see a force majeure clause, look for an impossibility clause, which is essentially the same thing. If should also specify events that are out of a tenant's control that cause an inability to pay rent.

3. Take advantage of the (free) resources available to you.

While hiring legal assistance can be costly, Friedman says there are other resources you can consult, like local or state bar associations that can be found online. According to Friedman, lawyers that are members of bar associations have pro bono resources that can assist tenants with any residential issues, and they can help residents "navigate landlord-tenant ordinances or rules in whatever town you're from."

Additionally, you can search online for documents that may give you more information about your rights as a tenant in your specific state. "So, for example, I'm originally from Chicago," said Friedman. "So I could just get online and search 'landlord-tenant ordinance Chicago.'" This will typically bring up a summary, often two pages, of what would have been a 35-page ordinance with challenging legal jargon that can help you figure out what your rights are as a tenant in your area.

4. My landlord is still being uncooperative. At what point do I hire a lawyer?

If you're still having problems with your landlord, it's important to consult bar associations in your area to find a legal consultant to help you.

Another thing to consider: Are the courts where you live open? According to Friedman, a landlord could have a claim against you and ask you to pay a certain amount by a certain date. But they, realistically, may not be able to file a complaint right now because the courts may not be open.

No matter what, Friedman encouraged having open and honest communication with your landlord. "Instead of worrying about the big bad landlord, remember they are business people too," he said. "And you might be able to work something out with that and you can be creative."