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Company should let students break leases

Some Southern Oregon University students are waiting to find out whether they will have to pay rent for university housing they may not be living in for the rest of the school year. Complicating their situation is the fact that they owe lease payments not to the University but to the nonprofit corporation that built the residence halls they occupy.

No one is to blame for this situation, but university officials and the dorms’ owners must act as quickly as possible to provide some clarity for students and their families.

SOU has switched to online instruction only for the spring term because of the new coronavirus pandemic, but residence halls have remained open. The university’s dining commons is offering takeout food only.

SOU extended spring break for a week, ending on April 3. Students who elected to move out of residence halls owned by the university are able to break their leases without penalty.

But students living in the school’s two largest dormitories, Shasta and McLoughlin halls, don’t know what their options are because their leases are with Collegiate Housing Foundation, which owns and operates the buildings on behalf of the university. SOU officials have contacted the nonprofit company to discuss students’ options, but don’t expect to get an answer for a week or more.

Meanwhile, lease payments are due April 3 — the last day of the extended spring break. The university has waived all late fees for the spring term, so students and parents should be able to wait for a definitive answer without incurring a penalty.

Still, it’s frustrating for students who want to move out but don’t know whether they’ll be held responsible for lease payments if they do.

This is an unintended consequence of years of declining state support for higher education, leading public colleges to seek out creative ways to modernize their facilities and accommodate more students without having to finance new construction on their own. University officials can’t be blamed for doing the best they can for their campuses with limited resources.

Under normal circumstances, SOU would be open for business for spring term and students would be making lease payments for housing they will use until the end of the school year. But these are not normal times. The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted lives throughout the country.

It’s understandable that some students will want to move out of the dorms, given the social distancing recommendations from health officials. They shouldn’t be penalized for that decision.

SOU administrators should advocate with the Collegiate Housing Foundation on those students’ behalf, and the company should do the right thing and allow students to break their leases without penalty.