Potential conflict concerning off-campus student housing at Brigham Young University is taking center stage for BYU law school student Julie Brooks.

Brooks posted a Change.org petition Wednesday calling for BYU to let students cancel off-campus housing contracts amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted BYU to move all of its classes online and the state of Utah to strongly discourage gatherings of more than 10 people.

“I was thinking, maybe I should go home because of everything going so awful,” Brooks said in an interview.

Brooks, who lives off campus in BYU-contracted housing, read her rental contract and found a clause, 23(B), which reads, “If the student leaves school due to a verified unforeseeable and unexpected catastrophic loss or serious illness. In such instances, termination of the Agreement is in effect after the landlord receives acceptable verification. Student shall forfeit security deposit and legal deductions.”

BYU sent a message to its students earlier this month that “encourages students to consider leaving campus and returning home to finish winter semester through remote coursework. We recognize individual circumstances may not allow this.”

According to the BYU On-Campus Housing Office, on-campus residents have the option of canceling their contracts immediately due to the COVID-19 outbreak since the university is asking students to go home.

According to BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins, since the university is encouraging students to leave campus, the university needs to be flexible with students’ on-campus housing contracts, which the university controls.

Brooks figured that the current pandemic and subsequent widespread disruption of daily life qualified as a reason to invoke that clause to cancel her contract.

Brooks emailed management of her complex, which is managed by Legend Real Estate, noting she was canceling her contract pursuant to section 23(B). Management responded to her and said it couldn’t cancel the contract for 120 days.

Brooks contended the clause implies she could be released from the contract immediately (the exact wording is “automatically” in the clause).

Legend sent an email to Brooks, which was obtained by The Daily Herald.

“Legend Real Estate represents the landlord (owner) as an agent; however, Legend does not have the authority to modify the terms of a rental contract. The decision to modify a rental contract is at the discretion of the landlord. The contract is considered legally binding between the landlord and the tenant. The current decision by the landlord of your property is:

“The contract remains in force and is still considered to be legally binding between the tenant and the landlord. Requests for modification of this decision should be emailed to the Legend Real Estate office. All requests will be handled by the attorney for this property. Modifications to rental contracts will not be considered until after COVID-19 passes,” the email reads in part.

Brooks said she was angry at management’s response to her.

“There are people who are at super high risk for COVID-19 ... and they can’t go home because their landlord won’t let them out of their lease. It’s ridiculous,” Brooks said.

According to its website, Legend Real Estate has listings posted for at least 38 different locations that are BYU-contracted properties.

Legend Real Estate owner Tim Metler said the decisions about rental contracts will go through each individual landlord or property manager.

“Some owners may do a rent adjustment, some may allow the kids out based upon their documentation, and I have some owners that are saying no,” Metler said.

Metler estimated that Legend manages properties for around 900 tenants. Some of that includes family housing, which doesn’t fall under the BYU-contracted category.

Metler said it’s not as simple as property managers and owners having the ability to release residents from contracts.

Many people who are commenting on the Change.org petition aren’t aware of the costs that landlords incur to own properties, he said.

“I think people need to consider what the economic ramifications are to those owners who have the investment in the market,” he said.

Some of the owners for which Legend manages are in retirement or are in a care home and need the rental income to pay basic bills, Metler said.

Otherwise, those owners could be looking at foreclosure.

“My guess would be 85 to 90% of the owners have some sort of existing debt on their property they have to service, and they’re not just going to get a waiver for five months on that property,” he said.

Metler said that Legend is trying to work with residents on an individual basis if they lose their jobs and income. He noted that it’s easier for on-campus residents to have their contracts canceled because the university has financial backing that many landlords don’t have.

A counter petition was posted to Change.org on Wednesday calling for BYU students to honor their housing contracts despite the ongoing pandemic.

The petition, created by someone named Andrew Jensen, contends that some “ill-informed students and supporters” misinterpreted section 23(C) of the housing guide.

The petition contends that 23(C) reads as follows:

“WITHDRAWAL, SUSPENSION, EXPULSION, OR DISMISSAL FROM THE UNIVERSITY: Tenants who are suspended or dismissed by the University, or who choose to withdraw from the University prior to the end of the Agreement Period, must contact the Discontinuance Office and the Hall Advisor, and submit a Petition for Agreement Release to request a release from this agreement. These Tenants are subject to the following conditions ...

“C) If a Tenant leaves school due to a verified unforeseeable and unexpected catastrophic loss or serious illness, termination of this Agreement is in effect after acceptable verification has taken place.”

It’s unknown which type of housing contract the counter petition refers to because section 23(C) of the BYU off-campus student-landlord contract, at the center of Brooks’ petition, actually reads: “If the student leaves school due to a verified call into active military duty, the student may terminate further contractual obligation after five days written notice to landlord as outlined in the Service Members Civil Relief Act of 2003.”

Attempts to reach Jensen for clarification were unsuccessful.

According to emails provided to the Daily Herald, BYU’s Off-Campus Housing Office sent an email to its contracted landlords, owners and property managers on March 14 that encouraged landlords and their agents to consider the value of releasing students from their contracts.

The email from the office further asks landlords to carefully examine the risks associated with keeping residents under contract especially in the event that, by agreement, landlords will have to quarantine and isolate residents should the community experience a large outbreak of sick and infected students.

In that event, landlords have to follow direction from state and local health departments, according to the email.

“The university will not provide solutions to housing dilemmas which may arise in your properties,” the email reads in part.

The Off-Campus Housing Office deferred questions to the university’s communications office.

According to a statement provided by Jenkins, “The Off-Campus Housing Office provided information to landlords/managers/contracted property owners letting them know that the university has encouraged students to leave, recognizing the university does not have the authority to mandate students be released from legally binding contracts, and that in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak landlords would be required to follow health department guidelines for providing a safe space for students to either be isolated or quarantined.

“Further, landlords were told if they did not provide for the health and safety of students by following the guidelines mentioned above, they may be in violation of the university’s agreement with them,” the statement continued.

According to BYU’s housing guide, there are five on-campus housing complexes for students to live as well as a total of 50 off-campus complexes that BYU contracts with.

Approximately 15,000 students live off-campus and the university has on-campus pace for 5,050 students and 1,025 families, according to BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins.

In order for housing complexes to contract with BYU, they must enforce the school’s Honor Code.

Marnie Merlos, the manager of one Provo apartment complex, Alpine Village, said she wouldn’t be able to say whether the complex would let residents cancel their contracts due to the coronavirus.

“It’s hard for me to answer,” she said.

Merlos referred additional questions to Alpine’s corporate owners, Redstone Residential, a corporation headquartered in Provo that manages several BYU-approved student housing complexes.

Many residents’ lease agreements will end in the next three months in line with the school year’s typical close, meaning they’re still on the hook for thousands of dollars in rent payments.

The pandemic has already resulted in massive job losses across Utah. More and more Utahns are expected to struggle with paying bills until the pandemic subsides and the economy regains its footing.