When thousands of students signed yearlong leases for off-campus housing last summer, few could have foreseen any reason their stay in Santa Cruz would be cut short. But as the pandemic forced most of the student body to return home, student renters have found themselves paying for rooms they no longer occupy.

UC Santa Cruz fourth-year Adam Selcov said he felt he needed to be close to his home in Los Angeles after his parents tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I didn’t have to come home but I wanted to be in LA in case anything bad was happening,” Selcov said. “I didn’t want to be seven hours away.” 

Some landlords, considering the unusual circumstances, have made exceptions to their leases.

Selcov’s landlord offered to end his lease early, but Selcov’s roommate, who was able to keep her job, decided to stay. In response, their landlord deducted $400 from the total rent.

“It was very nice, but in the grand scheme $900 from $1000 [per month for my room] is not a game changer,” Selcov said. 

After trying unsuccessfully to get out of his lease, second-year Jared Uenishi decided to move back home. He wanted to escape the added expenses of staying in Santa Cruz, like groceries and utilities, and picked up a part-time job when he got home to pay for his Santa Cruz rent. He worried if he didn’t pay rent he would lose housing next year and said he understood his landlord relied on his rent and had family to support.

Third-year transfer Kathryn Dressendorfer entered into a yearlong lease last July and moved home without many of her belongings on March 12. The 8-foot by 8-foot room costs $850 per month and she will be paying for 3 months of rent while not living there. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Dressendorfer

Many homebound students tried to sublet their rooms for the remainder of their leases. The UCSC Housing, Sublets & Roommates Facebook page is filled with students looking for subletters through summer. This dynamic has flipped the script on the usually competitive Santa Cruz housing market.

Fourth-year Andrew Singer started looking for a subletter as soon as UCSC announced spring quarter would be remote. He showed his room to three people before finding someone willing to sublet. 

However, with the high supply and low demand for housing, he had to concede to his subletter’s terms.

“My rent before utilities was $725 a month and the guy I found is paying $500. But $225 is much better than $725, so you cut your losses,” Singer said. “I was just desperate to find somebody. […] All I was worried about was having him commit to the spot.”

Second-year Jeevan Bhullar’s landlord made an exception to the lease and allowed him to sublease his room. But after watching his roommate search for a subleaser to no avail and realizing he would need to go back to Santa Cruz to move out of his room if he did find someone, Bhullar decided not to bother looking. 

These obstacles mean many students in off-campus housing are still paying for rooms they don’t occupy. But breaking a lease can make it harder to apply for future housing and in some cases even result in a lawsuit. 

“It’s a competitive housing market and […] because of that the buyer can’t really call the shots in the same way. The landlord is gonna take somebody on their terms. They have more power in what they do,” Bhullar said. “There’s nothing getting you out of that contract. There’s nothing you can do about that.”