Colleges across the nation have shut down due to increasing coronavirus cases, and the threat of nonrefundable, off-campus housing continues to loom over many Binghamton University students. Unlike students on campus, it is much harder for those in apartment complexes or houses to unite and make credible demands for refunds should students leave their off-campus housing and return home. Whereas BU will be directly responsible for a decision to shut down, and subsequently responsible for sending students home, landlords are exempt from such accountability and face little consequences for withholding money.
As it stands, students living off campus remain one of the biggest threats to the Binghamton community during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not required to undergo testing to the same extent as on-campus students, and with little to no regulation within our houses or apartment complexes, Binghamton is forced to rely heavily on other students to file noncompliance reports. The most recent email from Brian Rose, vice president for student affairs, states that noncompliance reports have come from a mix of students and community members. Still, the super-spreader events cited in this email must be visible enough for community members to report. Houses may be subject to this surveillance, but apartment complexes make it nearly impossible to discern the size of a social gathering or its hosts.
With COVID-19 being the largest threat to both BU and the Binghamton community, it would be fitting to provide off-campus students with an incentive to leave the area and quarantine at home should an outbreak occur. Social ordinances may be in place, but punitive measures are clearly insufficient when students feel as if they can escape them. A refund, even if not a full one, is likely enough motivation for many students to return home willingly. Not to mention, an empathetic stance would likely encourage students to renew a lease more than the standing fear tactics of signing before someone else takes your home out from under you.
Not only has the stress to renew leases begun, but some apartment complexes are now failing to communicate an increase in price for the next academic year. At the Chenango Place apartments in Downtown Binghamton, some residents are only given 24 hours notice to sign or renew a lease if someone else has expressed their intent to sign before them. Some residents stated that it was only once they decided to resign their lease that they were made aware of a $40 increase in their monthly rent.
Private facilities and landlords alike exploit this state of vulnerability and fear by allotting one day to consider a yearlong lease. While apartments understandably want to fill spots for the upcoming year comfortably, it remains important to consider current residents’ needs and stresses. Given the current pandemic, this pressure will adversely affect students who are increasingly unsure of what they will be able to afford in terms of rent or schooling, students whose family members are not easily accessible during business hours, students without reliable internet access to check their email with this information and all those students who are already facing disproportionate challenges to their semester.
A popular dissent to these refunds would obviously be a budget cut for these landlords and apartment complexes. This would potentially be a larger issue if it was not common knowledge that off-campus housing, while cheaper than BU dormitories, is still grossly overpriced. Since students pay for leases by the room, landlords can charge more per square foot. For apartments like Twin River Commons, this means that a four bedroom, four bathroom apartment comes to nearly $4000 per month. For comparison, the typical cost of the same apartment in Albany, New York, would be anywhere from $1000 to $2000. This doesn’t include Twin River Commons’ $75 per month parking, which accounts for a yearly total around $760 more than an annual parking pass on campus.
With this level of excess, landlords have every reason to be forgiving of their residents’ situation and offer them some level of financial relief. Freeing up Binghamton housing can also encourage better neighborhood upkeep. In 2016, Liberty Street had only four owner-occupied homes, with the remaining 31 presumably being owned by landlords. In renting these houses to student tenants who care little about house maintenance, students create a domino effect in which unattractive and older homes are scattered across Binghamton, leaving few fair housing options for permanent Binghamton residents. Not only will a refund contribute to communal health and proper social distancing, but it shows the level of compassion and empathy that both BU students and Binghamton community members deserve during this time.
Kaitlyn Liu is a junior majoring in English.