William & Mary currently plans to have students attend school on-campus in the fall.
But if there is a change to that plan, the local rental market could be drastically impacted.
“I think if the school were to give options for virtual or were to go [entirely] virtual, everyone would be backtracking to get out of their lease,” said Elizabeth Walthall, director of residential property management for Berkeley Property Management. “It will have a drastic impact on the off-campus housing we provide.”
Walthall said approximately 25-30 percent of the company’s properties are leased to William & Mary students. When the college first closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, it coincided with the time many students’ leases were about to end anyway. The pandemic also put a hold on the company’s plans to begin renting to students for the coming year.
Many of the properties for the coming year typically would be leased in June, but Walthall said there was a delay as students waited to see what the school would decide for instruction.
The college recently announced plans — “Path Forward” — to reopen in the fall. Officials said they are planning to open early for an in-person semester and would provide a new schedule to create flexibility.
As a result, Waltham said more students have reached out to secure housing in the area.
But as students prepare to return to campus, there is still a concern about what would happen if the college were to have to move to virtual instruction, similar to what happened in the spring.
“It’ll be a drastic impact,” Waltham said. “We would see widespread vacancies.”
And those vacancies would make a continuing impact on the market.
Waltham said if students weren’t able to return, then many landlords would have to sell their properties which would then create a downward pressure on the local sales market.
“I know there are misconceptions of typical landlords, but a lot of landlords depend on the tenants and having those vacancies filled,” she said. “But then the ball starts rolling of financial instability and that will trickle and grow as renters aren’t renting.”
Waltham said she hasn’t heard anything from the college about any changes to plans for in-campus instruction and tenants who are currently signing leases don’t seem to be overly concerned with the potential of the school closing again.
But Charlene Chamberlayne, a landlord in downtown Williamsburg, said reality is all too familiar and she wants to make sure her tenants are protected.
Chamberlayne originally bought a house in Williamsburg for her son when he was at William & Mary. But after he graduated in 2015, she started renting the it to other local students.
Chamberlayne said she typically rents her property based on the college’s school year, meaning leases run from August to May each year. But now that the semester is starting slightly earlier, Chamberlayne has been working with her tenants to try and work with their schedules.
She has added a condition on her lease saying she would refund the security deposit and void the lease if the pandemic caused classes to be canceled again, she said.
“So I feel like there’s not very much I can do about [the pandemic] or help out these college students as they try to juggle the changes facing them,” Chamberlayne said. “But I can provide them with housing that’s flexible.”
She’s also aware that model of leasing isn’t sustainable long-term. She said while a landlord might be able to take a loss for a year, maybe two, at some point it becomes too financially difficult.
In the meantime, she said she plans to make the lease agreements as flexible as possible as students try to figure out what their 2020 studies will look like.
“I think there is a bigger picture here than the bottom line at the end of the time frame,” she said. “Instead, it’s looking at the dollars in terms of humanity.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT THESE STORIES:
- William & Mary’s only virologist has serious concerns about the college’s reopening plans amid the coronavirus
- William & Mary announces ‘Path Forward’ for fall and beyond
- William & Mary students frustrated with portion of budget spent on James Monroe’s Highland
- W&M releases updates on Fall 2020 Path Forward