Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Viviana Ortega has considered Lobo Village her second home for the past three years, so when it came time to renew her lease last October, she didn’t give it a second thought.
The third-year early childhood education major was looking forward to continuing her education at the University of New Mexico, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
By July, Ortega’s scheduled classes moved completely online and the pandemic began causing financial issues for her family. To lessen the financial burden, Ortega transferred to a community college in Santa Fe for the fall semester.
“So when I had contacted (Lobo Village) and told them the situation that I wasn’t going to attend UNM any more, that I have to go back home, they told me that (Lobo Village) didn’t have a cancellation policy at the time,” Ortega said. “We understand that we did sign a contract. A contract is a contract, but you’d think that with everything going on they would help students out.”
Even though Ortega left UNM, her family continues to pay $560 a month for an empty apartment.
Institutions of higher education are in uncharted waters as classes resume amid the global pandemic. Almost 30% of colleges are moving primarily to online classes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Students like Ortega, meanwhile, who are looking for ways to cut costs, are running into obstacles with companies such as American Campus Communities (ACC), “the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager” of student housing, holding students to their leases.
ACC, in a statement, told the Journal it expects its tenants to honor their contractual obligations “just as any other off-campus housing provider” would.
“We will continue to provide housing for students whether classes are in-person, remote or a hybrid of the two learning methods,” Kate Lowery, a spokesperson for ACC, said. “Lease agreements require that our communities remain open and provide essential services to residents and, additionally, we are obligated to continue paying our onsite team members, utilities and local contractors.”
While UNM owns the land where Lobo Village sits, it has no control over the operation of those dormitories, according to a UNM spokeswoman.
“UNM has requested that they allow flexibility with UNM students regarding their housing agreements during the pandemic,” said UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair.
“Our understanding is they have made the decision to follow their re-let process, and that a dozen or so students were interested in doing so.”
Ortega isn’t alone in her grievance against ACC.
By March, complaints against the company across the country began pouring into the Better Business Bureau website from students and parents of students not being able to end their leases despite the pandemic.
In response to a complaint filed by a parent of another UNM student, Casas del Rio, one of ACC’s properties, suggested that students and families could try to sublet their apartments.
“If we are unable to fill the space with a re-let, the contract will continue to be valid and binding,” the company said in its response.
UNM has taken a different approach with the student housing it controls.
In July, the university was expecting almost 1,400 students to be living on campus in student housing. Now, the university has 1,000 students staying on campus. For the next few weeks, UNM will be waiving early cancellation fees.
For her part, Ortega is scrambling to find someone willing to take over her lease. Three weeks have passed since Ortega advertised her lease on Craigslist. Two people have asked about the lease, but she still hasn’t found anyone willing to take it over.
“Looking at the circumstances, it’s frustrating that (Lobo Village is) not doing anything to help the students and the people who have been loyal, you know,” Ortega said.