Ohio State Student Legal Services is advising students to wait “until at least the spring” to sign leases for off-campus housing due to the uncertainty provided by COVID-19. Credit: Cori Wade | Photo Editor

In a normal year, September sends soon-to-be off-campus students scouring the university district for apartments they won’t move into until the following August, but COVID-19 has prompted a new recommendation for students reading through leases — wait to sign them.

In a statement in early September, Student Legal Services encouraged Ohio State students to wait “until at least the spring” to sign off-campus housing leases, citing uncertain times and unknown impacts COVID-19 will have on students by next fall.

Molly Hegarty, managing director for Student Legal Services, said the office chose to release the statement when students would traditionally tour houses and meet with landlords. 

“As most students have seen, things can change really quickly,” Hegarty said. “After having done online learning, we might see students decide to stay home. Any number of things can happen in that period of time before moving in.”

Hegarty said the office has seen more students attempt to get out of their leases. But without a valid reason — like the landlord violating a part of the lease — she said students do not have much cause to do so.

Despite this, Hegarty said she expects many students to sign leases in the fall anyway. For those who do, SLS and Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services provide resources for students to understand what they’re signing and to what the lease obligates them.

“When you sign a lease, you are obligating yourself to certain legal duties and responsibilities, and depending on what type of lease you sign, you might actually be not only obligating yourself to your portion of the rent, but the entire rental amount,” Hegarty said. 

She said she hopes Student Legal Services’ online tools and virtual appointments help students mitigate the difficulties caused by renting in the era of COVID-19.

Despite the new guidance, campus-area landlords are gearing up to sign leases with new tenants. George Kanellopoulos, owner and manager of OSU Properties, said he didn’t expect the statement from Student Legal Services.

“I have a lot of respect for Student Legal Services, and I know the office wants to protect students during this uncertain time,” Kanellopoulos said. “Having said that, I worry that those students waiting until spring might miss out on the best properties and locations from reputable rental companies.” 

For students currently searching for places to live next year, Kanellopoulos said his company is taking precautions to keep current residents safe while also allowing potential tenants to see houses and apartments. One of those precautions is not conducting any in-person showings this year.

“Everything will be done virtually using recent and extensive move-in pictures, floor plans, e-signatures, and online payments,” Kanellopoulous said. 

Sam Morrow, a third-year in political science and history, just re-signed a lease for his current apartment, and he said he wished he had more options and time.

“We only had three days to decide if all five of us living here wanted to re-sign for next year,” Morrow said. “It wasn’t enough time to make a complete decision about where we wanted to go. But no one wants to look for housing in the middle of a pandemic.” 

Hegarty said above all else, SLS wants to ensure students recognize their leverage in making these decisions.

“You actually have a lot of power in the situation, both contractually under your lease and with the Ohio Landlord-Tenant [Laws],” she said. The Ohio Landlord-Tenant Laws outline legal responsibilities and rights for both landlords and tenants.

Students can visit https://studentlegal.osu.edu/civil-matters/campus-housing to schedule an appointment with Student Legal Services.

Correction: An original copy of this story stated campus-area landlords are “not gearing up to sign new leases.” The article was edited at 2:58 p.m. to state they are signing new leases.