Clause in UBC housing contract could leave students unexpectedly homeless this fall

In late July, third-year history student and Fraser Hall resident Kelli Burns got an email from UBC Student Housing and Community Services (SHCS) about changes to her residence contract.

The email highlighted two groups of amendments to the residence contract: the first group reflecting changes in the Sexual Misconduct Policy, the second relating to COVID-19.

“I didn’t give [the email] much thought because I thought the contract update they were talking about only really applied to social distancing within residence and safety measures they’re taking,” Burns said.

What Burns didn’t notice in the contract is a new residence clause which gives SHCS the authority to remove students from residence if they deem it necessary due to COVID-19. Burns was unaware of the new clause until she spoke with The Ubyssey.

“It’s very scary, knowing that my main place of residence … has the ability to kick me out and not help me with any kind of alternatives or any other outcomes. I could be homeless in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

A clause to ‘protect the university’

The clause, which exists in both year-round and first-year housing contracts, is meant to address issues that may arise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Student Housing and Community Services may be required to close certain residences, certain classes of accommodation, or reduce the number of residents in residences. In such case it may terminate this Contract and require you to vacate your accommodation without offering you alternate accommodation,” the clause reads.

Screenshot of the clause

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee has been vocal about her disappointment with the new clause. It came to her attention when she noticed growing concerns about the clause on Reddit.

“It’s clear that this current clause is mostly to protect the university and absolve it of legal liability in case of a COVID outbreak,” she said. “What we’re really seeking from [SHCS] is to communicate this COVID-19 clause to residents and to be able to commit to supporting students in the event of a residence closure.

“[The AMS is] advocating for residents to have a right to reasonable notice, and to ensure that no student resident will go homeless,” she added.

Yee noted that the student society has been in contact with SHCS about students’ concerns with the clause in order to ensure proper student consultation in the future.

The AMS conducted a survey earlier in the summer with the goal of gathering information on the financial, academic, physical and mental health of students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents felt that the UBC COVID-19 response has not been adequate in addressing issues in student housing affordability.

Of the 809 students who signed a year-round housing contract for the 2020/21 school year, 68.5 per cent reported that they were concerned about successfully meeting their rent payments during the year.

Andrew Parr, managing director of SHCS, explained that the clause will only need to be exercised in a worst-case scenario situation such as “a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in a residence building that would require relocating students from that building.”

“Any decision to close a residence building would be made in close consultation with our health care partners,” he said.

The clause clearly states that the university would not provide students with alternate accommodation in the case that they have to close or lower numbers in residences. But in statements to The Ubyssey, Parr said that UBC would “work to ensure” displaced students would have housing on campus.

“There is capacity in student housing to accommodate displaced residents,” Parr added. “We’d work closely with [Vancouver Coastal Health] and the Provincial Health Authority in such a situation.”

A ‘precarious situation’

Dr. Penny Gurstein, a UBC professor who specializes in sociocultural aspects of community planning, expressed concern about the new clause.

“I've never seen something like that,” she said. “What it does is it puts the students in a very precarious situation in that [there’s] no guarantee that they would actually have housing if … we get a second wave.”

This unexpected addition to residence contracts is also affecting first-year students, like Amelia Creemer, who will be living in Orchard Commons this fall.

“There wasn’t much information about warning. Do they give you two weeks to get out, or two days or a month? That’s my biggest concern, especially because I’m coming from California.”

Creemer expressed concerns about potentially having to find a new place of residence, saying “that could be a little bit hectic and crazy. And I definitely wouldn't really be focusing on any academic material.”

Creemer noted that she appreciated knowing the university would try to put in effort. But the lack of a housing guarantee is something Gurstein and Yee find particularly alarming.

“Given that Vancouver has a very low vacancy rate, how are these students necessarily going to find accommodation that they could afford and that would suit what they need?” Gurstein said.

Since UBC student housing does not fall under the BC Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), student residents are not protected by the same laws as other tenants. This gives SHCS the ability to impose such clauses.

“This [clause] is really pushing it in my opinion,” Burns said.

Second-year chemical engineering student and Marine Drive resident Humleen Samra feels that not being protected by the RTA only makes the clause even more frightening.

“This clause wouldn’t be excusable in an apartment downtown. People would go crazy, [the landlord] would get sued. But just because we live on campus, just because we’re students, we’re subject to lower living standards?” she said.