Undergrads Flood Into Off-Campus Housing, Planning to Stay

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Within hours of Michigan State University announcing the suspension of in-person undergraduate instruction last Tuesday, East Lansing’s rental market quickly grew saturated, as students displaced from dorms grabbed for-lease and sublease offers.

This includes plenty of freshmen who will now combine their first year in college with their first year living in unsupervised housing.

Even before MSU’s big announcement last week, multiple landlords and property managers told ELi that, despite the pandemic, most renters have stuck with their leases. They have seen only occasional instances of tenants trying to get out of leases.

Hagan Realty, run by brothers Brian and Matt Hagan, rents around 200 houses and apartments around East Lansing, mostly to students. This year, there was a small increase in the number of queries about getting out of a lease, Brian Hagan told ELi, typically either for roommate- or health-related reasons.

Only “one or two groups” followed through with either not coming back or finding new tenants to replace them, Hagan said. 

Prime Housing Group rents a mix of houses and apartment units around East Lansing, and according to President Nancy Marr, those are fully rented for the fall.

In an email to ELi, Marr noted that a handful of renters had their circumstances change and “we worked with them to get their apartment re-rented.”

Similarly, Nancy Cuddeback of Cuddeback Properties said her one duplex is rented to undergraduates. 

Meanwhile, the MSU Student Housing Cooperative is going to have houses near full, much to the surprise of Coop President Erik Berg. In March, Berg and others planned on a 25-percent vacancy rate for the upcoming contract year. 

“We are currently only looking at an 8-percent vacancy rate,” Berg said, “which really surprises me, to be honest.”

All this means that East Lansing — home to about 25,000 undergrads during past school years — can expect almost that many this year, too. 

The total number could even be higher than normal because of tens of thousands of students displaced from the dorms moving into off-campus housing.

“When people sign leases, they’re paying for it, they might not be able to get out of it,” Mayor Aaron Stephens said after MSU’s decision. “Honestly, you have very young adults that have been stuck at home with their parents for six, seven months when they felt like they should have been in college.”

For much off-campus housing at MSU, leases are signed almost a year in advance, in some cases with big advance payments required.

MSU President Sam Stanley, when asked what impact suspending in-person education might have on students who had signed leases, acknowledged that a late decision had made things hard on a lot of MSU students and their families.

“It always means people are going to be inconvenienced,” Stanley said. “And we really feel sorry for that. My hope is landlords in the area that will be receptive to students who are caught, particularly those who may be in financial need, to make a difference. It’s something we’re talking to them about.” 

Stephens hopes landlords will at least be willing to make some accommodation for tenants, short of letting them out of the contract. Students who are eligible, Stephens said, can apply for rental assistance through the city and the Capital Area Housing Partnership. But few will meet the eligibility criteria.

What about the health risks?

Students living together are supposed to function like a family unit within their apartment or house, in regard to Covid-19. If one person tests positive for the virus, anyone living with them is then also supposed to get tested and stay in quarantine for the prescribed length of time. 

For the student coop houses specifically, Berg said, approaches are being decided on a house-by-house basis in terms of how strenuously housemates want to distance, disinfect, and enforce mask wearing. Some houses might just do a daily disinfecting, with masks not required inside, since they are all living together anyway. Others could require masks in all spaces except in private rooms or a dining area.

Decisions about the number of guests allowed are also left up to the houses, but they’re capped to some extent by Ingham County Health Department orders and statewide executive orders. The health department recently capped outdoor party size and health officer Linda Vail told ELi she “wouldn’t advise [residents] to be in common rooms together over ten people without social distancing.”

To facilitate mask wearing, social distancing and good hygiene practices, MSU has distributed kits to landlords and the coops. The kits contain masks, hand sanitizer, and a 6-foot tape measure, along with educational and resource materials. 

Students living off campus are liable to punishment by MSU if they’re found to be violating East Lansing’s downtown mask mandate or other requirements, along with being liable to fine-carrying citations from public agencies.

The hope from President Stanley to Mayor Stephens on down is that providing the resources to the students and having enforcement from the university and the city can be a big enough stick.

What happens next, we’ll see.

“They’re coming. And if they’re not coming, they’re already here,” Stephens said.

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