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U-Md. students stage protest, continue to fight lease agreements at campus apartments

Gavin Kohn, 21, leads a protest through the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park.
Gavin Kohn, 21, leads a protest through the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park. (Lauren Lumpkin/The Washington Post)

Gavin Kohn, 21, signed his lease to live in the Courtyards, an apartment on the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park, in February. The novel coronavirus, at that point, had arrived in the United States, but the then-junior didn’t know it would upend the school year.

But as the virus raged on, it became clear his senior year was also in jeopardy. The university scaled back on-campus housing, announced plans to conduct 80 percent of undergraduate courses online and imposed coronavirus testing requirements. Kohn, and about 500 other students who had planned to live in the Courtyards and its sister property, South Campus Commons, started to feel wary about living in groups.

But, bound by their leases, they may be forced to do it, anyway.

Last week, Kohn joined a car caravan protest with about two dozen of his peers. The mechanical engineering and astronomy student stood through the sunroof of his brother’s blue Hyundai Elantra and shouted through a megaphone: “U-Md., do something!” The line of cars snaked around the main administration building on the College Park campus, which houses the president’s office.

“They need to do the right thing and help us get out of this lease,” said Kohn, who lives about half-an-hour away in Columbia, Md. “I’m very anxious about coronavirus because I live with three other roommates and I only know one of them. And I get my own room and bathroom, but we share a kitchen and we’re in the same living space. So it’s fairly scary, especially now.”

Hundreds of students at the university have been petitioning the school, the state and a private company to let them out of their leases. South Campus Commons and the Courtyards — which house about 3,000 students — are both built on university property, but the buildings are owned by the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO), a state entity. Students who entered lease agreements did so with the state agency.

MEDCO can borrow money, through bonds, to finance projects like student housing throughout the state.

The apartments are managed by Capstone On-Campus Management, a private company based in Alabama. Capstone, in a statement issued on behalf of MEDCO, said they are “unable to release all students due to its obligations to bondholders, vendors and other entities, as well as not being eligible for any of the federal relief programs currently available.” The management company did not respond to further requests for comment.

Bob Brennan, executive director of MEDCO, said he has a “fiduciary responsibility” to operate the units and said tenants can find other students to take over their leases. He added housing arrangements “can be done very well” if students follow public health guidelines, including wearing masks, staying physically distant and practicing good hygiene.

“I think there’s a lot of individual responsibility and care that needs to be taken to protect yourself,” Brennan said. “I live in a condo building, which is probably just as crowded as one of our facilities. The apartment building is no different than my condo building.”

But students say it’s a health risk and argue they should have the option to opt out of housing arrangements, just like their peers who live in traditional dorms. However, the university has no control over the lease agreements students signed at South Campus Commons and the Courtyards, said Natifia Mullings, a spokeswoman for the campus.

“In this case, students have signed contracts with a private management company, not the university,” she said in an email.

Some students, who were able to prove they had medical conditions or sought legal help, have managed to break their leases. About 100 students, inspired by a small number of their peers who took legal action, have now retained legal assistance.

Leonard L. Lucchi, the attorney representing the students, is arguing the leases students signed are no longer valid because MEDCO cannot ensure the units are habitable. Capstone, in a July email, told students not all units are suitable for self-quarantine and those asked to isolate themselves may be provided alternative housing.

“The Additional Rules and Regulations contain new and material requirements and conditions which differ greatly from those contained in the lease agreements,” Lucchi wrote in a letter to MEDCO and university officials.

Many of the students cite financial concerns — the prospect of spending between $800 and $1,000 each month to spend most of their time in online classes is a waste of money, they say.

But there are also health concerns. Hannah Aalemansour, who signed her lease in February for an August 1 move-in, was supposed to live with three of her friends. Two months ago, they found other students to take over their leases. Aalemansour knows she could have done the same, but didn’t think it was necessary at the time.

“At that time, it didn’t seem like the health risk would be as prevalent in the fall,” she said.

Aalemansour’s current roommates are strangers, and she doesn’t know what safety precautions, if any, they have been taking. The biology and French student has her own bedroom in the apartment, but would share a kitchen, living room and laundry room.

She hasn’t moved in — or paid her rent of $811.

Scientists are still learning about the novel coronavirus, but experts are certain it can spread through respiratory droplets that are produced when a person breathes, talks, sneezes or coughs.

Those droplets can linger in the air, potentially posing a risk to people who share spaces — like hallways and bathrooms, said Serene Al-Momen, an adjunct professor at George Mason University and chief executive of Senseware, which makes sensors that monitor indoor air quality.

“In busy indoor areas like college residence halls, one infected student can produce a lot of small, lingering viral particles that create a riskier environment for everyone around,” Al-Momen said. “So it’s crucial that HVAC systems have adequate ventilation and filtration to remove those particles as quickly as possible, especially in common areas. But the infrastructure in these buildings varies widely, making it difficult to tell if a given environment is optimized to remove viral particles quickly.”

Local lawmakers and officials, including campus President Darryll J. Pines, recently sent a letter to College Park property owners, asking them to be lenient with student tenants.

“Given the critical public health considerations and the risk to our greater community, we ask that you work with student renters and consider allowing them to terminate leases or sublet to other students who wish to remain in the community,” according to the letter. “This would allow more students to live elsewhere while participating remotely in their instruction.”

The university said it is helping students who are trying to transfer their leases. But students said it’s not enough.

Simin Li, a senior and computer science major who has helped organize efforts to get students out of their leases, said MEDCO is placing its bondholders over its tenants.

“Think about how many of us could get sick from covid,” she said. “This is a health and safety issue, not a profits issue.”

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