When Washington State University students left for spring break this year, few knew that they wouldn't return to in-person classes for the rest of the semester.
Still, many figured things would get better by fall. With every official notice from the university pointing toward a return to carefully planned in-person instruction this school year, scores of students signed leases in the late spring and early summer for apartments this fall.
Then in late July, the university pulled the plug. COVID-19 rates were climbing across the state, including in Eastern Washington, which meant the hard decision was made to hold most classes online again. Students who could stay home were asked to do so.
Soon, Facebook Marketplace postings and message boards started filling with students who no longer planned to return to Pullman. "Take over my lease, August rent paid!" "Will pay all fees for lease takeover!"
"I decided I really didn't want to move to Pullman for mainly financial reasons," says Desiree Rose, a 19-year-old sophomore who's been looking for someone to take over her lease for weeks now. "If I didn't have to be in Pullman, I really didn't want to."
But in a college town where the university largely drives the need for rental housing, and with other vacancies still available, she and many others are finding there are few takers.
It's left some students with a tough decision: Return to Pullman to take classes online and hope that things improve enough for campus to reopen next semester, or stay with their families in their hometowns while paying rent for an apartment that can cost nearly as much as in-state tuition.
For Rose, it meant moving from Spokane to Pullman last weekend, even as she continues looking for someone to take over her lease.
But for others, the health concern of the pandemic looms larger. If your roommates meet up with their friends from across the region who are back in town — if weekends mean partying as usual — could you be next? Indeed, this week Whitman County reported a spike in COVID cases, many of them linked to Greek Row.
For WSU senior Julia Jensen, a 21-year-old business major, it's also been difficult to find someone to take over her lease at the Grove apartments.
In Pullman, many apartments are targeted toward student life, which often comes with high turnover as people transfer, graduate or move away. In places like the Grove, rather than sign a lease with one or two roommates, where everyone is responsible if one person can't make rent, individuals instead sign a lease only for their own locking bedroom and bathroom within a larger unit. The company can then place people as tenants move in and out, and each student is only responsible for their own fees and rent.
But even as that individual responsibility sounds nice, Jensen says it's been hard to find anyone to take over her lease. Because of the setup, several have thought she was trying to get out of a one-bedroom apartment or studio, but after finding out they'd have a roommate, their interest drops.
For Jensen, COVID-19 isn't just a theoretical risk. When she was supposed to go home to Olympia this March once classes were pushed online, she instead had to stay with her sister, as her mom, dad, and then her octogenarian grandmother all contracted the virus.
"I had actually sent Julia to her sister's when she first came to town, because I was down for 10 days. I don't wish that on anybody, the fever, body aches, a 104 fever," says Jensen's mom, Michelle Moore-Jensen. "We still have lingering effects, so it's just been a nightmare. So I'm supposed to send my daughter to college if you know all the idiots are gonna go out?"
Jensen says she worries that even without on-campus classes, those around her will likely go to parties.
"I know that cases are starting to go crazy," Jensen says. "I know how people at WSU are, they're going to party and do school online. It's going to be disgusting."
Moore-Jensen is irate that the family can't pay a fee to break the lease on the apartment. Instead, as the lease states, Jensen will have to find a new tenant or remain responsible for the rent throughout the year. So the family planned to drive across the state last week to pick up keys for a room Jensen doesn't plan to move into.
"I would have never signed that lease had WSU said, 'We are not holding classes,'" Moore-Jensen says. "We don't know what to do."
Still, even with COVID being a new concern, the number of students looking to get out of their lease doesn't seem that much higher to the Grove property manager, Bailey, who declined to give her last name when speaking with the Inlander.
"In my opinion it's been pretty similar to previous years, though there's obviously different reasons this year," she says. "Even with that, we still find tons of people still want to live in Pullman."
She says the 584-bedroom complex won't start advertising rooms that have already been leased until the rest of their occupancy is full, and currently it isn't. As a general piece of advice for people who may be renting for the first time, she reminds people they should carefully read and consider a lease before signing it.
"My advice is: Read everything before you sign it," she says. "Don't jump into anything before you're ready, because that's binding."
With classes being held remotely, many students understandably don't feel the cost of living near campus makes sense.
Around the country, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees is $10,440, while the average cost of room and board is $11,510, according to statistics from the College Board.
For first-generation college student Jessica Peralta, a 23-year-old senior working toward her business administration degree, it seemed like she'd lucked out early this summer when she found an apartment that was pet-friendly, ensuring she could live with her two cats this fall.
As the stress from the pandemic affected her this spring, driving her anxiety higher, she also got a mini Australian shepherd to support her through this emotionally difficult year. While her apartment is pet-friendly, having those pets also comes at a price.
"A lot of us already had [leases] by the time they announced maybe three, four weeks ago we were going online officially. It was really frustrating to know we weren't going back to class," Peralta says. "I'd rather stay home with my family and save a ton of money rather than spend close to $1,000 a month out here."
Peralta says she's had many people interested in taking over her lease, with one person even going so far as to apply, but even that fell through. So she moved much of her stuff from her family home in Bremerton to Pullman, where she'll likely spend this last school year.
"The financial aspect is gonna kill me and my family this last year for this. Basically all I have is student loans for it," Peralta says. "My mom is offering to help, but as a senior in college who's done everything on her own, I feel so guilty having to do that to my parents and my family."
Still, she says she feels lucky to be supported by her loved ones, as she knows many students aren't as lucky. While she continues looking for someone to take over her lease, she's also preparing for the worst.
"I am letting people message me and I'm getting back to them, and kind of getting the same answers," Peralta says. "But now being in the apartment, for me to not stress, I basically have to come to terms with it and make the best out of this situation." ♦