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A Year Later, Few Loose Ends Remain in COVID-Related Student Housing Disputes

During an August demonstration, a car was painted with a message from University of Maryland students trying to get out of their MEDCO apartment leases. Photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

The Maryland Economic Development Corporation provided assistance to about 300 of the 1,000 students in Maryland’s public universities who wanted to cancel their housing contracts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report submitted to state lawmakers this week.

MEDCO is a quasi-governmental economic development agency that owns student housing at several University System of Maryland campuses. But as the coronavirus pandemic upended many schools’ plans for on-campus learning, students who had signed up to live in MEDCO-owned properties found getting out of their fall leases was far more difficult than if they had been living in campus-owned dormitories. 

The lack of flexibility in the midst of a pandemic infuriated some students and their families — and it has taken months, as well as pressure from several lawmakers, to sort through the disputes. 

Although Universities made refunds or terminated lease commitments for students living in university owned dormitories, MEDCO said that it could not do the same because it was tied to its bondholders and had already gone through its reserve funds when the corporation offered refunds for students in the prior spring semester.  

As a part of this year’s budget bill, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) granted the University System of Maryland a deficiency appropriation of $1 million to help compensate the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) for some of its lost revenue in housing leases during the pandemic. 

In December, MEDCO signed an agreement with the University of Maryland College Park and another with Towson University to release students from their housing leases under certain circumstances. 

For instance, students who requested cancellation in the fall semester but are able to come back in the spring had their payment credited towards their spring housing costs. And only students who requested cancellation by August 2020 were released from paying their fall housing fees.  

From these agreements, MEDCO was able to help 129 Towson University students and 162 students at University of Maryland College Park, according to its report to lawmakers this week. However, certain groups of students, such as those who had already moved in or who did not return housing keys, were not offered relief. 

It took until March for Scott Depuy, the father of a Towson student, to receive full financial relief. 

“It was a total rollercoaster of emotions. I think it was a horrible situation that myself and other families had to fight so hard for this,” Depuy said. “MEDCO and these public universities are extensions of the residents of Maryland. At the end of the day, we’re all on the same team here.” 

“I really feel that some state leader — such as the Governor, the president of the universities or MEDCO — should have stepped up.” 

Leonard L. Lucchi, the attorney representing around a hundred students at UMD College Park and 40 students at Towson University, said that he was glad to see MEDCO recognize the financial burdens of students and hopes to see a full resolution soon. 

“We are pleased to see MEDCO’s acknowledgment of the continuing burden on those hundreds of students not granted any relief under the current settlement agreements with UMCP and Towson University. MEDCO’s stated commitment to release graduating seniors from leases, and its explanation of further plans to assist all students not covered by the settlement agreements, is a positive development which we hope will lead to a complete resolution,” Lucchi said. 

“We are optimistic that, with all of the available federal funds, MEDCO and the universities will finalize and implement plans to fully release all affected students from all lease obligations and not attempt any collection efforts or initiate legal action. After 11 difficult months, this matter needs to be put to rest,” he continued. 

There are still some students who are not fully exempt from their contracts and still owe outstanding balances, according to the report. It would take an estimated half-million dollars to compensate the small portion of students who are still in a state of uncertainty with their housing contracts, Lucchi said. 

But MEDCO has not actively pursued collections of outstanding balances of students who did not qualify for relief under the December agreements. And as long as MEDCO is able to meet its financial obligations, it will continue to not pursue collections from students, the agency said in its report. 

Lawmakers say that they will continue to follow the issue. 

“This is a situation that the [House Education & Economic Development] subcommittee continues to follow,” said Del. Ben Barnes (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s), the chair of the subcommittee, who held a hearing last December to resolve the issue. 

“We are happy that to date, to my knowledge, no student has had collections pursued against them and we would hope that that would continue to be the practice,” Barnes continued. 

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(Disclosure: Leonard Lucchi is a member of the Maryland Matters Board of Directors.)