Housing addendum leaves students questioning fall living situation

Students have been given three weeks to decide if they will agree to the Student Housing Agreement Addendum or submit a cancellation request and live off campus. ORACLE PHOTO

From restrictions on visitation to no issuance of refunds, students thinking about living on campus during the 2020-2021 academic year will have to agree to an addendum consisting of stricter rules as a result of COVID-19.

Housing and Residential Education on Wednesday released the Student Housing Agreement Addendum for students who have filled out a housing application for the upcoming academic year. The document listed rules, restrictions and expectations for on-campus residents regarding health and safety, as well as listing general terms and provisions.

Restrictions listed in the addendum include no visitors and overnight guests in dorm rooms. Communal spaces, laundry rooms and elevators may be restricted or have a limited capacity. Only residents of an assigned building are permitted and have access to enter their building, and only one other building resident will be allowed as a guest in one’s assigned room.

Students living on campus will have to opt out of the Student Housing Agreement Addendum to discontinue their on-campus housing contract by July 1, and if they do nothing, they will automatically agree to the terms and conditions outlined in the addendum and renew their housing contract.

Among the provisions, the one on nonrefundable housing rates and fees caught the attention of many students.

The statement said students will not be eligible for a refund of housing rental rates or fees in the event that residence halls close, are restricted during the term or the length of the housing agreement is changed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The 2019-2020 housing rates for on-campus residents ranged anywhere from $748.75 per month to $11,500 for two semesters, according to the USF Housing and Residential Education hall rates page. 

With a slight change, students in the Village will be paying more to live on campus in the upcoming academic year.

For two semesters, students could be paying up to $11,846 in housing rates for the 2020-2021 school year.

After the university shifted to remote instruction in the spring semester due to COVID-19, USF Housing and Residential Education sent refunds to over 5,500 students on the Tampa campus, totaling more than $8.5 million in refunds, according to Vice President of Housing and Residential Education Ana Hernandez.

For the 2020-2021 academic year, Hernandez said refunds like that will not be possible. 

Some students have already decided they will not renew their housing contract and have opted to choose an off-campus living arrangement.

One of these students is Caroline Diaz, a sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences.

“The addendum definitely has changed my mind about living on campus,” Diaz said. “I just signed a lease for an off-campus apartment because I need a more permanent place to stay if we were to go into lockdown again.”

As an international student, Diaz was unable to fly home until recently, and does not want to be stuck if campus closes again.

Despite the addendum being her reason for moving off campus, Diaz said she understands that the university is trying to protect its students and it was the nonrefundable clause in the document that caused her to want to move.

“I think that it’s fair in the sense of wanting to assure maximum health and safety by minimizing contact by not permitting any nonresident inside of the buildings,” Diaz said. “The only thing that got me upset was the possibility of not getting a refund for events that are out of our hands.”

Lydia Symens, a senior majoring in international studies, agreed.

Symens also said she understood why the addendum is necessary regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, but found the nonrefundable aspect to be a deal breaker for living on campus.

“I did not sign the addendum,” Symens said. “The ambiguity of it will only allow for more screwovers from USF this fall, and I don’t want to be involved. In the introduction of the addendum they insinuated they are anticipating coronavirus to make its way to campus, and it seems inevitable that this no-refund policy will come into play this fall.”

Hernandez said that closing down the residence halls is not anticipated and they hope to stay open.

“Based on the information we have at this time, we expect to keep the residence halls open for the entire semester,” Hernandez said, “However, like every other aspect of the university operation, we have to prepare some contingency plans in case COVID-19 conditions change.”

Despite the restrictions, not all students are terminating their on-campus housing contract because of the addendum. Morgan Davis, a sophomore majoring in health sciences and psychology, will continue with her contract.

“I’m honestly fine with the addendum,” Davis said. “I expected there to be changes for the upcoming school year, and whether I like them or not, it is what it is. I really just want to be back on campus.”

Expecting to graduate in the fall semester, Anh Nguyen, a graduate student in the Master of Science in business analytics/information systems program, has been contemplating living on campus.

Nguyen sent Housing and Residential Education an email in May asking about housing for her graduation situation and was told she would be able to cancel her fall/spring housing application without penalties or extra fees. 

She also was told, in the email from May, that housing cancellations in the new academic year would likely result in refunds.

“I chose to go with on-campus housing because I thought if anything happens they can refund the difference compared to being stuck with a contract with off-campus housing,” Nguyen said.

With the addendum, that no longer is true.

Hernandez said that those who respond to emails are trying to provide the information they have to the best of their ability from the spring semester shutdown.

“We know that the circumstances are different from spring, so what the addendum says is the best information that we have at this point,” Hernandez said. “This is the policy we are implementing.”

For Nguyen, the vagueness of the addendum leaves room for misinterpretation.

“The clauses are broad, which leaves room for any interpretation that is against the students’ best interest,” Nguyen said. “The timing they provided for us to think and consider is very short. Housing pretty much stops us from getting a refund, which is ridiculous since the university has not even set yet. Why are we being forced to agree to this whole thing before we know anything?”

In contrast to how these students said they felt about the addendum, Hernandez said that Housing and Residential Education is trying to be as detailed as possible since everyone is able to somewhat predict what kinds of effects COVID-19 would have on USF’s residential communities.

Being surprised is something Hernandez said is not something she wants students to be when they return to campus or when making this decision, and that is why housing was specific in the addendum’s content.

“We want to establish clear communication and expectations, so that families know what to expect when they return to campus,” Hernandez said. “We are trying to be really up front and transparent so that students and families can make the best decisions for themselves.”

A word of advice from Hernandez to students thinking of living on campus is to seek out as much information as possible to prioritize themselves and their situation.

“Everybody needs to make the best decisions for themselves,” Hernandez said. “I wish that I was able to guarantee that we will be open for the full term of the contract. That is what we desire and what everybody on campus would love to ensure, but circumstances have changed, and COVID-19 really has us trying to put together our contingency plans.”