The uncertainty of the status of fall classes at IUP due to the coronavirus pandemic has created a conundrum for real estate managers and students alike.
Many students signed a lease months ago to live off campus next school year — long before anyone knew about the threat from COVID-19. Since then, in-person classes at PASSHE’s 13 schools have been canceled until at least the fall semester.
But the bill is coming due for many students who are already under contract to live in an off-campus residence. It’s not unusual for students to sign a lease in the previous fall for the following school year, said Dick Clawson, president of the Indiana County Landlord’s Association, and payments begin for many as early as June 1.
But Oak Grove Realty, which declined to divulge how many units it owns, will not be refunding the money, said Kari DeStefano, of Oak Grove. However, she said the company, based in the 100 block of Philadelphia Street in Indiana, is trying to be flexible, stressing that different payment plans are available that “can be modified as needed to fit the situation.”
“All I’m going to say is, I’m doing everything I can to be fair to everyone who is under contract,” DeStefano said.
But Rich Irr, of Moon Township, Allegheny County, doesn’t think the rental company is being fair. He has a son who attends IUP and signed a contract last fall with Oak Grove. The first payment is due in a few weeks.
“It’s ridiculous,” Irr said. “As a parent, I’m not going to let my son go to IUP if he’s doing classes online. He can do that at home” and save the money.
An email exchange between Irr and Oak Grove forwarded last week by Irr to the Gazette says the company will refund the rent only if IUP does not hold in-person classes in either the fall or spring semester.
“The original lease has no termination clause for this unforeseen circumstance and our owners are under no obligation to cancel any leases, even if face-to-face classes are canceled for the entire year,” the email reads. “This means that if IUP cancels in person classes for Fall 2020 but reopens to in person classes for Spring 2021 the termination clause will not apply so all rent for the entire lease term (Fall & Spring) will be due as per the lease terms.”
Irr, a landlord himself, said he understands the company’s plight and would be willing to work out a compromise with Oak Grove but says the company so far has been unwilling to do so.
At Crimson Court Rentals, manager David Kirk said that while he would like to be able to provide refunds, doing so on a large scale would likely bankrupt him.
“I’m not in a position to do that,” Kirk said.
He did say he would be willing to work with students on an individual basis, and that students would still be free to live in the rental properties and take online classes.
“As a parent, I can relate. I can certainly understand it,” Kirk said. “There’s so much unknown. When the dust settles, who will be impacted? Crazy times.”
Crimson Court Townhouses, based along Carpenter Avenue in Indiana, has five locations with 266 beds.
Kirk suggested that state or federal legislators step in with relief for those with privately owned housing, like has happened with a number of other small businesses.
“I wish the Legislature would take our business under consideration so we can return that to the tenants,” he said.
Another local real estate management company, B&L Properties, along Grant Street, did not respond to requests for comment.
But some Indiana rental companies say they will not charge students if they choose to remain home and take classes online.
Laken Pudliner, property manager at Crimson Hawk Housing (formerly known as Lazor Brothers), said the company plans to add an addendum to already-signed leases to issue refunds if there are no in-person classes this year.
“Under the circumstances, it’s crazy,” she said.
Crimson Hawk Housing, headquartered along Maple Street, has 92 units with about 200 beds, Pudliner said.
“We chose not to charge them for the fall” if there are no in-person classes, said Sally Kaufman, manager of University Square Rentals, which owns 244 houses and apartments with 462 beds. “It’s not (the students’) fault.”
Kaufman said University Square, owned by developer Bill Beck, does not start collecting rent until Aug. 1, buying them more time than most.
Of course the situation will be rendered moot if IUP students return to the classrooms in August, but Michelle Fryling, spokeswoman for the university, said the timing of a decision remains up in the air. And if students are back on campus, university life may look somewhat different.
“We’re working toward face-to-face instruction. We’re looking at a lot of different scenarios,” she said.
Because the residence halls are not at capacity, students could be more spread out, she said.
For its part, the university refunded about $10 million to students in tuition and fees for the two months or so that they were unable to live on campus this spring, the university reported last week to its council of trustees.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Fryling said.
And, she said, the university has some money available from the recently passed federal CARES Act to financially support some of those who live off campus.
But as much of a financial blow as IUP is taking without students on campus, Fryling said she knows it is also damaging to the town that surrounds it.
“I worry about how it’s going to hurt the economy. We’re well aware that we’re not an island,” she said.