Students face challenges to ending lease during COVID-19

Maddy Riemenschneider, a frontline COVID-19 worker, tried to terminate her lease for fear of spreading the disease to roommates, but has been unable to. Other student tenants are in the same situation.

Bill Dane, attorney at Student Legal Services, poses for a portrait in Van Cleve Park in Minneapolis on Monday, June 1. Dane said his workload recently increased as more students need to settle legal disputes.

Nur B. Adam

Bill Dane, attorney at Student Legal Services, poses for a portrait in Van Cleve Park in Minneapolis on Monday, June 1. Dane said his workload recently increased as more students need to settle legal disputes.

Katelyn Vue

Working more than 40 hours a week at a pharmacy on the front lines of COVID-19, Maddy Riemenschneider is a second-year pharmacy student at the University of Minnesota trying to terminate her lease at WaHu apartments. 

Riemenschneider brought up concerns to management in her apartment building about the risk of exposing her roommates to COVID-19, but she was not able to end her lease. 

During the pandemic, many students have no longer needed to live in their apartments near campus because of in-person course cancellations due to COVID-19, but some have been unable to terminate their lease agreements with landlords. As a result, multiple students say they feel stuck and have reached out to the University’s Student Legal Service to address their living situations. 

“On top of having to deal with my disagreeable apartment, I was stressed out. I was lucky to get my six hours of sleep and manage everything,” Riemenschneider said. “I have a pretty level head and a huge work ethic, so I just keep going and take everything day by day.” 

Now, Riemenschneider continues to stay in a safe, isolated location at a friend’s place while still being billed for her apartment at WaHu, though she isn’t paying for it. After unsuccessfully trying to terminate her lease herself, she sought legal counsel from SLS to support her case. 

Dozens of students are reaching out to SLS for counseling on tenant rights related to COVID-19 — since March 18, there have been at least 80 such cases. SLS said the exact number of cases might rise because some have not yet been classified as coronavirus related. 

Bill Dane, an SLS staff attorney, said the COVID-19 pandemic is a “perfect storm” because many students are trying to terminate their leases.

WaHu is managed by the Cardinal Group Management, which also manages several other apartment buildings around the University. 

“We recognize that these are challenging times and many of our residents and team members have seen changes in their education or employment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sylvester Brandon, operations director of Cardinal Group Management, in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “While we empathize with all of our residents faced with these challenges, these are not reasons to terminate the contract.”

Tejas Nivarty, a third-year chemical engineering student, emailed Dinnaken Properties management to end his lease after he moved back home with his family. He said he didn’t reach out for legal support but hoped to still have options to end his lease because of the pandemic and financial pressure. 

“On one hand, I understand where they’re coming from, but also it would’ve definitely lessened the burden on students because … I mean, rent is $500 a month and that is still a significant expense for a majority of students,” said Nivarty. 

Aubrey O’Quinn, a leasing assistant and community assistant at University Commons, said students who want to end their lease can sublease yet might be stuck trying to find another person to take their lease for the rest of the term. University Commons is owned and managed by American Campus Communities. 

The property management company has a COVID-19 Resident Hardship Program, a task force aimed at addressing tenant concerns on a case-by-case basis. The task force releases tenants from their contracts for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic, such as being a front-line or essential worker or having a compromised immune system. 

More than 50 students have reached out to management wanting to sublease their University Commons space; many more have moved off the property since March. 

As one of the most leased-out properties from over 200 American Campus Communities’ locations nationwide, University Commons has currently at 95.7% of their capacity leased for the next school year. 

Dane sent a letter to WaHu to address Riemenschneider’s situation but received a letter back stating that Riemenschneider could not end her lease. 

“For me, that demonstrates on the part of the Cardinal Group [Management] … a total disregard for the health and well-being of the residents of their building because Maddy comes into contact with COVID-19 people on a regular basis,” said Dane.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated whether Maddy Riemenschneider was continuing to pay rent for her apartment. Riemenschneider is not currently paying rent at her WaHu apartment but continues to be billed. A previous version also inaccurately described Cardinal Management Group’s role in the area; they are a property management company. 

Correction: Additionally, two paragraphs have since been taken down that have since been found to be inaccurate. One was a quote that incorrectly characterized the nature of American Campus Communities’ fall leasing plans; another inaccurately characterized the legal obligations tenants must follow to terminate leases.