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Millions Of College Students Stuck In Pre-Pandemic Leases

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- As classes go online at colleges across the Bay Area for the fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students who are unable to return to campus say they still have to pay for the apartments they secured before the coronavirus hit.

Millions of college students -- and their parents -- are being forced to pay for apartments those students will never live in.

"It's been draining," said 19-year-old SJSU student Paola Villalobos.

Villalobos is a sophomore majoring in economics at San Jose State University. She thought she'd moving into a shared apartment near campus this week, but due to the pandemic, all of her classes are online and she no longer feels safe sharing a room.

She has moved back in with her mom in Long Beach, but she's still on the hook to pay rent in San Jose.

"I will be paying the remaining balance. I have no other choice," Villalobos said.

She's also paying rent at home, her mom lost work because of COVID-19 so Villalobos is picking up extra shifts at Target to help her family stay afloat. The financial strain is getting to her.

"I'm wondering, am I going to have to be a part-time student now? To make up for the money that I'm going to have to pay?" she said.

Nineteen-year-old Gianna Falzon is in a similar situation.

"I do miss my friends. I miss the whole social aspect and just, like, going to like football games," Falzon said about not returning to campus this fall.

Falzon is supposed to be heading back to Sacramento State right now. Instead, she's at home in Pacifica and her mother is footing the bill for her apartment near campus.

"I don't think it's fair. I mean, I'm trying to look at it from their point of view also, but I don't think it's fair that there isn't any type of leniency," said Gianna's mom Carol Carpinelli.

Carpinelli, who works for Alaska Airlines, has been out of work since April. She says she does have enough money in her daughter's college fund saved to cover the apartment, but she was hoping she wouldn't have to pay for housing that her daughter won't use.

"So, unfortunately, there's not too many options right now. Until the state or federal, government takes action to protect renters, or their parents in these situations," said Jackie Ravenscroft, a tenants rights attorney in San Francisco.

"There's millions of students across the United States facing this exact same situation right now," Ravenscroft said.

Ravenscroft advises tenants to try to pay a fee to get out of their lease if possible. She says that's likely what's best for both parties, especially if the tenant doesn't have the money to cover the entire year.

"Landlords may be incentivized to come to a deal upfront to take some lesser amount of money, instead of going through the expensive and time intensive process of suing a student for unpaid rent, and then maybe never being able to collect it," Ravenscroft said.

Students should check their lease for what is called a force majeure or "act of God" clause. It's rare, but if you have one in your lease it stipulates that you can terminate the lease due to events beyond your control like, for example, a global pandemic.

If you don't have a force majeure clause and can't agree on a fee to break the lease, then you can opt to give your landlord a 30-day notice to vacate. That makes it so your landlord is legally required to try to replace you, though you'll still be on the hook for rent until you find a subletter to take your place.

"So I did pay the first month's rent because, you know, again, I don't want bad credit and I didn't really have a choice," Carpinelli said.

Villalobos is worried she might have to dip into her savings that she planned to put toward a Master's Degree, or worse, drop out altogether in order to pay for an apartment she'll never use.

"I have to sacrifice my education for an apartment," Villalobos said.

There are hundreds of other students in Villalobos's situation at The Grad in San Jose. A petition is circulating online with more than 1,000 signatures asking the owners of apartment complex to let students out of their leases. Owners of The Grad declined to comment for this story.

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