Thousands of students sign petition demanding no-fee lease cancellations citing recent Berkeley legislation, state law raises legal questions
UC Davis student April Nicholson launched a petition calling for Davis City Council to pass new legislation offering various student lease accommodations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student job loss and remote learning. As of Aug. 10, the petition has raised over 4,000 signatures.
The petition demands that new legislation implements no-fee lease cancellation before the lease’s start date. If the lease has already started, it details that students should be able to cancel while being responsible for a maximum of one month’s rent. Finally, it includes that rent relief should be available for students who have lost roommates.
Nicholson—who would be a fourth-year political science major but is taking the year off because of the virus—explained that her main goal was to highlight the issue and has been met with positive feedback from city officials.
“My original intention was to bring awareness to the problem to Davis City Council,” Nicholson said. “I did put in demands, and they were what I hoped to accomplish in the best-case scenario. I have reached out to Davis City Council and political actors within the city, and they’re actually on our side and have looked into it for me.”
Despite wanting to help students, Davis City Councilmember Dan Carson said the petition’s first two demands raise multiple legal questions.
“There is a provision in both the federal and state constitution that says government agencies aren’t allowed to impair private contracts,” Carson said. “If we take an action that takes away the use of personal property—apartment complexes—it raises the question of whether the state taxpayers will be placed on the hook for reimbursing the landlords. And there is a state law in the civil code that says if you break a lease, you have to compensate the landlord in full.”
The petition referenced recent Berkeley legislation, which allows college students to cancel their leases without paying a fee if classes are online or if they have experienced a loss of income.
“On June 30, the City Council adopted ordinance No. 7,720-N.S. to allow tenants to terminate leases early without incurring any penalties in the event of a COVID-19 related reasons for delayed payment of rent, or where the tenants are students at an academic institution that has cancelled or limited in-person classes,” the city of Berkeley COVID-19 Tenant and Landlord Resources page reads.
Although the Berkeley legislation includes no-fee lease cancellation for students, Berkeley Property Owners Association Executive Director Krista Gulbransen explained that students breaking their lease are still liable for paying rent until the landlord can find a replacement tenant.
“The idea behind the ordinance was that landlords could not charge an automatic lease termination fee” Gulbransen said. “But there’s a state law that says a landlord has the right to mitigate damages related to the breaking of the lease, which can be rent lost or due. Landlords have the responsibility to find a new tenant, but until then, the tenant that’s breaking the lease has the responsibility to continue paying rent.”
Carson explains that the third demand, which calls for the city to provide rent subsidization and relief for students who lost roommates, would be difficult due to the financial crisis facing the city.
“Our city is also in a difficult situation,” Carson said. “We’re trying to resolve a $20 million loss of funding over three fiscal years. We’re all struggling in this situation. It’s a challenge for us to create new programs—however worthy they might be—at a time when we’re having trouble paying the bills. ”
Nicholson directed any students with further questions to the city of Davis Tenant Resources page, which outlines tenant rights and responsibilities.
Written by: Eden Winniford –– firstname.lastname@example.org