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Orange Coast College's student housing complex is scheduled to open for the fall semester even though the college is transitioning to mostly online classes.

Despite the closure of the Orange Coast College campus for fall classes and its transition to primarily online learning, the new on-campus housing development scheduled to open in the fall is apparently holding students to their leases even though many say they can no longer afford it.

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a financial strain on many students and the school going online for the fall semester, many students who say they can no longer move into The Harbour say they are being told by the school’s department of Housing and Residential Education that they can’t get out of their lease agreements.

Dabin Oh, an 18-year-old film and video major, said she will be taking a semester off in the fall to apply for film schools in her home country of South Korea due to the pandemic, and that she would even offer money to a student who would take over her lease.

“The school has not been flexible about this current situation, especially when all other businesses are handling payments really flexibly, like airlines and gyms,” Oh said. “I was so disappointed at how the school is not caring for students. They only care about money.”

Oh said she’s considered freezing or cancelling her credit card so that The Harbour can’t charge her for rent for an apartment she won’t be living in.

In speaking to a representative from the HRE department, Oh said that she was told that dropping out of OCC would not guarantee a cancellation of her lease.

“She also mentioned that I can write some letter to [HRE department director Jamie Kammerman] and then maybe I will get out of it after they consider my situation, but she also said it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that I will get out of it,” Oh said.

Michelle Bui, an 18-year-old incoming music major, said she had wanted to experience living on-campus for her first year of college but her family is not financially stable enough now to afford the rent due to a reduction in work hours.

“All they said was that I couldn’t get out of my lease, then asked if I had any other financial assistance like FAFSA,” Bui said. “After that, they said I have to find a person to replace me or wait until the apartment is full, but other than that I still have to pay.”

Bui and Oh said that the deadline for the first rent payment, which was originally this month, was delayed to June 1, and that this is the only flexibility that the department has shown.

Larisha Mays, 24, who had been planning on a child development major, said she and her sister were planning to move into The Harbour, especially with the assistance of financial aid, before she and her father lost their jobs.

Because of that, Mays said her family will be moving away in the summer, but the housing department informed her that she’d still be responsible for payments unless she found someone to take over her lease, or the number of signed leases and prospective applicants exceeded the number of available rooms.

“I’m hoping they fill up the dorms so me and my sister can be more OK,” Mays said. “I’m not sure what will happen but all I can do is hope.”

Nour Hasan, a 20-year-old computer science major, said she wanted to live at The Harbour to live closer to school, but now wants to save money and remain living with her parents since fall classes will most likely continue online.

“They informed me that they will add me onto the list of people who want to back out of the lease. There is a long list of students who want to back out,” Hasan said.

Hasan says she is worried about being forced to live at The Harbour if there isn’t a fair accommodation made for students who want to back out of their lease.

“I feel a lot of pressure and stress not knowing what’s going to happen next and wondering if I am bound to the contract without a way out,” Hasan said.

A copy of the housing agreement provided by one of the students contains a section that explains what a student would need to do in order to get out of their lease.

“Once this Agreement is signed by Owner and Resident, Resident can terminate occupancy by providing written notice to Owner and by fully vacating the premises, provided that Resident will remain fully responsible for the Total Rent that would have accrued under this Agreement, through the end of the full original Term, accelerated and payable at the time of termination,” the agreement says.

The agreement also says that, if a resident can find a person who will successfully take over their lease, the original resident will be charged a “delegation fee of $200” before the apartment can be switched over.

Yanelli Hernandez, an incoming 19-year-old mathematics major, said she lost her job due to the pandemic, and her parents are dealing with back taxes and her father’s medical bills and retirement, meaning they don’t have the funds to take on the full cost of the apartment’s rent.

Hernandez added that she’d be willing to pay the $200 fee if it meant terminating her lease without needing to find another student or waiting for The Harbour to start waitlisting prospective students.

“If the apartments do not reach capacity you will be stuck with paying for the apartment,” Hernandez said. “Additionally, they have sent an email saying that the apartments are not going to close, so the students are still required to pay.”

Oh, Bui, Mays, Hasan, and Hernandez, like several other students, have been posting to social media, including the OCC mobile app, in hopes of finding a student who would take over their apartment’s lease. None said they have had any luck securing someone who would.

“They should give people a chance to get out of the lease, like a deadline or a couple of weeks to make up your mind if you already signed the lease, or like a fee that you can pay if you want to get out of the lease for certain reasons,” Mays said, “instead of us having to try to find someone to take over when most of us don’t find anyone.”

The HRE department at OCC didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

An article for Boston Globe Real Estate recommends that anyone who wants to get out of their lease and can’t find someone to take over should check their lease agreement and try to negotiate a compromise, and informs that breaking a lease could come with lingering costs if a landlord sues for unpaid rent or sells the debt to a collection agency, which may affect the resident’s credit score.

The Harbour is managed by The Scion Group, the largest privately-held operator of student housing communities in the U.S. The Scion Group website mentions that they manage 86 communities, from Cal State Fullerton to Penn State University.

No one at The Scion Group corporate office could be reached for comment.

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