When Toby Ilogu and his friend signed a housing lease for The Lorenzo earlier this spring, he said they were ecstatic. The way the house was advertised, with gyms, pools and theaters, made him “almost believe it would have been that heavenly place” he would be living in.
However, as COVID-19 shifted USC’s fall semester from campus to Zoom, his anticipation for “living at this resort” turned into denied calls and voicemails to his leasing agent and Lorenzo, along with anxiety and confusion about his options.
“Months later,” said Ilogu, a cinematic arts, film and television production major, “I’m talking truly months later, it was revealed that the leasing agent who signed our lease back in the spring was no longer with The Lorenzo. He got fired, but [the Lorenzo] never told me.”
Ilogu ended up paying his rent while living elsewhere. His experience offered a glimpse into how COVID-19 left students struggling as they dealt with the stress of off-campus housing leases. Many have broken their contracts, subleased to other tenants or are still paying rent while living away, creating a ghost-town like effect on areas around campus.
For the entire summer, Max Drenser, a junior majoring in fine arts, went back and forth with his parents about whether he would return to campus and whether the campus would open for the fall semester. Drenser, who was supposed to live in a fraternity house, said once the university cancelled in-person classes in early July, his family decided he would not go back and needed to get out of the lease, as living in a fraternity house would not be the ideal situation for him during a pandemic. Unlike other students, Drenser was able to get out of his lease at the fraternity house.
“My dad handles a lot of it, but I know that there was a lot of back and forth and arguing,” Drenser said. “Obviously, it’s very stressful because a fraternity needs to maintain a certain amount of revenue in order to keep active. So I think it was frustrating for the landlord. And of course, all the parents.”
Cassie Weiner, a sophomore psychology major who currently resides at the West 27th Place, underwent a leasing upheaval of another kind. The roommate she originally signed up with, an international student from Greece, decided not to return. Weiner said the apartment complex told her if she did not want to be randomly assigned an unknown roommate, she either would have to find someone to sublease or she would have to pay the full $2,500 rent for the double-occupancy room herself.
“This was a big ordeal for us,” Weiner said. “Thank goodness that there are so many transfers and spring admits looking for housing because on campus wasn’t an option.”
Weiner said a friend of her friend knew a transfer student from Paris, so she and the other apartment residents decided to live with the person they had never met. “It ended up working out well, luckily for us, but obviously that whole process was stressful on every single person that was living in the apartment.”
Weiner said she did not ask USC to help with her and her roommate’s situation because she felt if she reached out to the university, they would become too involved and take over the situation. She said the “ridiculous” short-lived policy from President Donald Trump’s administration to bar non-citizen students from returning to the country for distance learning only made her wearier of turning to USC.
Weiner said that in the brief time period that her first international roommate "wasn’t technically allowed to come back, [the roommate] had already made other arrangements to stay in Europe and figured out an internship. So by the time they said, ‘You can come back’, she was like, ‘Why would I?’ It’s unrealistic at this point.”
Weiner said the housing complex wasn’t sensitive to the fact that her roommate could not come back from across the world and that not everyone could pay for the additional fee if they did not find a sublease in time.
“The fact of the matter is the purposeful ambiguity of it all," Ilogu said. "At the end of the day, The Lorenzo is protected. If you don’t know what’s going on, then that’s on you. Lorenzo is in no hurry and no obligation to look out for you and to right the wrongs caused by COVID.”
Annenberg Media reached out multiple times during a weeklong period for comment from The Lorenzo, the West 27th Place and other housing complexes near campus, none of which provided an official response.