By Adriana Vicic —

If you’re a student who wants to get out of a residential lease, now that most September-December classes are online, you might have more options than you think.

Many students choose to rent a space in their school’s city because they are from out of town, and rely on temporary rental agreements to stay close to campus during the school year.

But since many schools are continuing to hold online classes for at least the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some are stuck in in leases they previously signed, says Kristie Pagniello, acting executive director at Neighbourhood Legal Services London and Middlesex (NLCLM).

“[The students] are often going to be in remote learning situations and will want to remain in their hometown,” said Pagniello. “Given that the cost of education is so high, this is a very significant [issue] for those students and their families.”

Srobona Podder, a second-year law student at Western, said  she signed her lease agreement in January before the pandemic began. But after finding out that her entire academic year would be online, she decided that it made the most financial and practical sense to try to get out of it early.

“At first I was kind of thinking, should I use that space to study away from home, or sometimes it might be nice to go back to London and just have a dedicated study space? But with everything that’s going on and all the health restrictions, it just seemed unreasonable to have to pay that much rent for a full year when I have a perfectly nice home with my parents,” she said.

The Ontario Residential Tenancies Act states that when a lease expires, the tenant has the option to continue living on a month-to-month basis. This bodes well for students who planned on staying in the same house they were previously in, as they have the option to leave their lease, as long as they give a 60-day notice.

For other students like Podder, who signed a new lease for the 2020–2021 school year, the process of terminating it is a little more difficult, although still possible.

The law student said her first step was simply asking her landlord for an early termination.

Step 1: Talk to your landlord

Podder said she emailed Bayfield Apartments, an off-campus housing service offered by Western, and they agreed to end her lease early if she gave notice and sent in the proper forms.

“I was so afraid of being stuck in my lease, and I was too afraid to ask at first. . . Just ask,” she said. “The worst your landlord can say is no.”

Sabreen Ghenniwa, a paralegal at NLSLM, agreed that speaking with the landlord first is the best place to begin the lease-termination process.

She said that students should be honest with their landlord and explain why continuing the lease during the pandemic is no longer an ideal situation for them. They can ask their landlord if they can sublet, which would allow students to find another person to live in and pay rent despite still being signed onto the previous lease. If the landlord agrees, and the student finds a subletter, the problem is solved.

If the landlord agrees to terminate the lease without subletting, the landlord and tenants must both sign an N11 form.

“It’s a form that shows that both parties agree to end the tenancy at this [specific] date. As long as the landlord’s willing to do this, then you’re good. That’s the best-case scenario,” said Ghenniwa.

If the landlord isn’t willing to sign the form and the student still wants to end the lease, the landlord may take the case to the Landlord and Tenant Board to ensure that they will be getting the money promised to them in the contract. Ghenniwa said that most likely, the landlord will go on grounds that the student is not paying the rent they agreed to and issue an N4, an eviction notice.

Step 2: Attend the proceeding

The date on the N4 is when the tenant is officially evicted, which means the tenancy is up. When the student receives a hearing date, Ghenniwa said the student needs to attend the proceeding in order to defend their case. If they don’t, the case is more likely to rule in the landlord’s favour.

How does a student defend why they shouldn’t have to pay the lease? A paper trail, said the paralegal.

Step 3: Document everything

“Taking steps—trying to reach out to the landlord, documenting everything, having everything in paperwork, preferably not just verbal but with email. Even text messages. Having a paper trail showing that you tried to remedy the situation, but you couldn’t, and that you understand that the lease is being broken but they are circumstances that are beyond you,” she said.

With COVID-19 causing this unprecedented time, there is no law that protects tenants in these kinds of circumstances. Ghenniwa believes that it’s important for students to educate themselves on their rights as tenants.

“It is especially important during the pandemic for students to know their legal obligations and potential risks they may face and to be aware. It is always easier to remedy their legal matter now. The longer they prolong it, the more they will be at risk of getting into a situation that will be more difficult to remedy,” she said.

“The pandemic has made certain issues that typically uncommon become a potential problem for students during these unprecedented times.”

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