Coming to the Virtual Table: Negotiating COVID-19 Student Housing Contract Disputes
With the announcement of BYU classes going online due to the spread of COVID-19, all students were encouraged to return home to finish the semester — but for many living in off-campus housing, BYU’s decision means they must either pay for housing they are no longer using or risk breaching their rental agreements.
“We’ve mediated so many of these over the last month. Some of the students’ stories are just heartbreaking,” said Ben Cook, Director of BYU Law’s Center for Peace & Conflict Resolution.
Landlords are feeling the pressure too, explained Emily Taylor, the Centers’ assistant director and trained mediator, author, and conflict coach.
“We got a call from an owner, who owns just a few condos; he lives off the housing payment of what he earns each month. He’s retired, and he’s very concerned that he may not be able to survive financially,” said Taylor.
Before COVID-19 hit, the Center received about 180 housing mediation requests a year. But in just a 49-day window, from March 19th until May 6th, they’ve received 260 mediation requests. That’s a ten-fold daily increase on average. Taylor has recruited 15 new volunteer mediators to handle about 25 cases per week.
“I have a team of mediators; these are some of the best, well-trained attorney mediators from Salt Lake, just a great group of people,” said Taylor.
Before quarantine, students and landlords were required to meet in person for mediation. Taylor said talking face-to-face is the best option, but the Center is quickly adapting. They’ve already held 140 mediations over Zoom, a video conferencing platform.
“What can be tricky is that in-person conversation tends to help settle problems; there’s an emotional connection that often happens in mediation, that’s a little bit harder over Zoom, and it can feel a little more transactional,” explained Taylor.
If no agreement is met, the next step is arbitration.
“We were anticipating high volume, and we anticipated pretty significant legal consequences and impact,” explained Cook.
That’s why they’ve hired former judge Anthony Schofield to handle the influx of COVID-19 arbitration cases. They needed someone with a long career of interpreting the law. Schofield’s decisions will be posted on the Center’s website seven days after the hearings. Schofield published his first two arbitration rulings on May 7th, one student was released from her contract; the other student was not. Here’s Schofield’s 1st Ruling and 2nd Ruling in detail.
Taylor’s next concern is the second wave of mediation. A provision in the BYU Landlord Tenant
Agreement allows students to get out of their contract for Fall housing if they notify 90 days before the start of the contract. That date is May 26th. In a typical year 15,000 students sign off-campus housing contracts. That means a potential avalanche of new mediation cases will hit the Center if students decide to stay home for Fall Semester due to COVID-19 concerns. BYU has not made an official announcement about holding classes on-line or on campus this Fall.