Rent Too High, Ineligible for Emergency Grants

Rent Too High, Ineligible for Emergency Grants (Photo: Sukanya Sitthikongsak/Getty Images )

Amelia Straight thought she found the perfect apartment. It was in Kensington, New York, well within her price range. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and she got the news that her soon-to-be landlord was backing out.

The landlord revoked the approved application because he was scared by coronavirus news that was ramping up in late March, she said.

The clock was ticking for Straight. The 19-year-old had little time before the lease was ending on her shared room in her apartment at the time. And her plans to rent an apartment with her boyfriend to split the expenses seemed to be going awry. Not to mention her hours were recently reduced at her job. 

“For a good like two or three weeks of my life, I didn’t know where I was gonna live. I didn’t know where I was gonna end up,” said Straight, a sophomore at The New School.

“I think I’m seeing for myself firsthand how we’re having this massive crisis where millions and millions of people are not being treated the way they have the right to be treated and (the) coronavirus is just exacerbating what was already there.”

The global studies major is now living in a spare bedroom in her boyfriend’s mom’s house in New York. And after weeks of hunting, she and her boyfriend secured a place in Brooklyn — after handing over three months of rent, a security deposit and a broker’s fee.

Straight is one of the thousands of college students across the country who are struggling with job losses or trying to find housing after college dorms closed to fight the spread of the coronavirus. While many colleges and universities have set aside funds to help students with emergency needs, it’s often not enough. And as unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket and hit all-time highs, college students are not exempt. 

“My academic performance drastically decreased because of COVID partially from the stress due to housing, job insecurity because I wasn’t sure if I would still have my job because it was a nonessential job,” she said. “I thought my boss was planning on firing me. She didn’t end up firing me, but still at the time, it was uncertain.”

For Straight, going back home to her parents’ house in Oregon is not an option, as she fears she could unknowingly have the virus and doesn’t want to risk infecting them. But it’s still hard to be away from family. 

“I’m really worried about them — the Pacific Northwest is a coronavirus hotbed,” she said. “I talk to my parents every day, and they are very worried about me.”

Rhonda Sharpe, president, and founder of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, said full-time students who are part-time workers, like Straight, are often left feeling strapped and with fewer resources.

“When you’re talking about things like losing housing … I don’t know that you can prepare for that because whether you’re a student or you are a full-time worker, everybody is facing that hardship and trying to figure out how to maintain a home in this crisis,” Sharpe said.

Straight said her income comes from refund checks from her student loans and scholarships and the work she does as a part-time assistant at a New York nonprofit. She says she makes less than $10,000 at her job, and her hours were recently cut because of the pandemic. When she can, Straight sends money back home to help with her mom’s recent hospital bill. So, money is tight. 

“Right now, my boyfriend’s mom is paying for our food and other expenses … I’m working my part-time job and saving my money, so I’ll be able to afford groceries and rent for a few months in my new apartment. We don’t get delivery very often … We mostly cook to save money,” Straight said.

College students claimed as dependents on their parents’ taxes didn’t receive a coronavirus stimulus payment. But the CARES Act has also made it possible for colleges and universities to receive funding for direct cash grants to give students for food, housing and more. Straight received $1,200 through her school’s student emergency fund. 

But DACA students like Yanet Amado are excluded from those funds. The U.S. Department of Education prohibits colleges from giving emergency assistance to Dreamers through the relief package. Colleges and universities were instructed to distribute the emergency funds to students who are eligible for federal financial aid, which only includes U.S. citizens and some legal permanent residents.

Amado, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she wasn’t surprised about U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ stance.

“In my head, I was like, ‘There will be a day when the Department of Education will just help every student, regardless of their immigration status.’ When is there going to be the day when that will happen?’”

Amado works from home for a nonprofit but is unsure if the coronavirus will affect her position there. She is from Mexico, and she lives with her parents in the U.S. She said she always feels like she has to prepare herself for the worst. 

“There’s always a strict budget, no matter what … I think immigrants are always trying to prepare,” she said. 

Sharpe, who is also an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Richmond, said black and Hispanic households that are low-income are disproportionately affected by the financial strain that coronavirus can bring.

She said it’s crucial for students to find out if they qualify for other provisions in the CARES Act, such as expanded unemployment benefits. 

Students should also reach out to their health and human services departments in their area to see if they could qualify for food stamps, housing assistance and even ask local charities if they are offering help, Sharpe said.

“It can be a difficult mind shift to go from the person who has been volunteering for some of these organizations to being a person who now needs their assistance,” Sharpe said. “But it is incredibly important for students to understand that that’s what these organizations are for. They are there to help people when they are in need.”

And as colleges and universities consider plans for the fall, some students worry how they will afford school as internships are canceled, and summer jobs are scarce. Straight said she’s nervous about how she’ll pay for classes next semester, even though her school is letting some students pay for their classes in payment plans.

“I don’t know what kind of loans and financial aid I’ll be going to get, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to go back,” she said. “Right now, the thought of figuring out how I’m going to afford my next semester gives me a lot of anxiety.”

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