PROVO, Utah – A group of BYU students has written a letter to President Kevin J Worthen and Academic Vice President C. Shane Reese detailing reforms they would like made to BYU’s Off-Campus Housing Office and the off-campus housing contract.
“The events of the pandemic have revealed a number of issues in the BYU approved off-campus housing system,” the letter stated.
The requested reforms include moving the cancellation deadline closer to the contract’s start date; permitting students to cancel their contracts during the semester for an increased number of adverse circumstances; increasing students’ knowledge of and access to legal resources for managing housing disputes; and increasing the Off-Campus Housing Office’s power to monitor and penalize BYU-contracted complexes. The students also requested increased safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
This letter came partly in response to the death of UVU student Trevor Lee, who died June 9 from complications related to COVID-19 while living and working in UVU student housing. The company that manages the complex he lived in also manages many BYU-contracted apartments.
According to Julie Brooks, one of the letter’s coauthors, the pandemic is not the cause of problems in off-campus housing but should be the catalyst for change.
“The student housing market has been absolutely terrible for years,” she said. “Students have been taken advantage of incessantly, and they’ve had little to no avenues of relief.”
If BYU requires its students to live in university-contracted housing, Brooks argued, then BYU needs to take responsibility for student welfare and hold landlords and property managers accountable.
Coauthor Hannah Gladwell said their suggested reforms were based largely on data they gathered from their Instagram account, @provo23b, where many students shared their stories of being stuck in their contracts after BYU encouraged students to return home Winter Semester. Gladwell expressed her hope that landlords will be more accommodating to student circumstances this semester.
“I personally feel pretty passionate about allowing high risk students to to terminate contracts,” she said. “It’s sad to me that the clause says, ‘In case of serious illness,’ but that serious illness has to occur before the contract can be terminated, which, in that case, it might be too late.”
BYU has already begun implementing increased safety measures regarding COVID-19 and student housing, such as encouraging students to download a symptom-tracking app and requiring all household members to quarantine in the event one of them tests positive for the illness.
BYU is also requiring its students and employees to self report positive diagnoses to the university, something the coauthors requested in the letter. Brooks said she was unsure whether they enacted that requirement before or after receiving the letter.
Some of the potential changes outlined in the letter — such as requiring landlords to release students from contracts in the event that BYU asks all students to return home, which will be the case this coming November — could have adverse effects for landlords and property managers, according to Tim Metler of Legend Real Estate.
“I think it’s unreasonable to think that we’re just going to do a blanket release across the board,” he said, because not all property owners are in a financial position to do so.
Many property owners in Provo have mortgages on their properties, he said, and he even knows of one owner who uses income from their property to afford a relative’s healthcare in a long-term care center. Requiring a blanket release “could be quite a hardship on the community,” he said.
Metler also said the housing market is not so full that students need a longer cancellation period; if a student isn’t ready to commit to an apartment earlier than 90 days before the contract start date, he or she can wait to buy a contract and there will still be many available. In fact, according to Metler, the housing contract has already been changed in favor of students in recent years.
The provision allowing students to cancel their contract in the event of marriage or a mission is relatively new, Metler said, as is the current version of section 23B, which allows a student to cancel their contract if they have left school for a catastrophic loss or serious illness. According to him, the earlier version of section 23B was “less in favor of the student.”
“At this point where we’re at right now, there are already several means for the students to get out of their contract if they’re under a hardship,” he said.
Landlord Reina Gamett commented on the @provo23b Instagram post where the coauthors shared part of the letter saying that if requirements for BYU-approved status become “unreasonable and unprofitable,” she would simply start renting to non-BYU students. This, she pointed out in her comment, could in turn cause a housing shortage and higher rent for BYU students.
“Landlords will not be running unprofitable business,” she wrote.
Brooks said BYU administration received the letter and have scheduled a meeting between the letter’s co-authors, the director and associate director of student life at BYU and the manager of BYU off-campus housing this week to discuss it.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU is always interested in hearing from its students.
“BYU’s Off Campus Housing Office has been encouraging students and parents to share their concerns, which it will take into consideration as it reviews the contract for the 2021-2022 academic year,” she said. “The 2020-2021 contract between BYU and the Off Campus Housing landlords was put in place in late 2019.”