I sit here in my childhood bedroom reflecting on the final assignment of my final quarter of Junior year. A far stretch from how I imagined my school year ending.
Luckily, I’m only a third-year so this isn’t the end of my Cal Poly career and I still have the chance to walk across the stage for my graduation. Unfortunately, that also means I’m in for one more year of uncertainty surrounding my classes and my living situation.
I was in San Luis Obispo when COVID-19 started. My friends and I were actually at a St. Fratty’s Day party with around 350 of our closest friends, joking about the fact that we would all have the Coronavirus by the end of the holiday. Just a day later, Cal Poly canceled in-person finals and all my roommates had booked it back home leaving me to live alone in a 5 bedroom house that we had just renewed our lease for.
I lived there alone for two months before reluctantly moving home in an effort to save some money on groceries as my jobs one by one let me go. My roommates and I now pay $5,000 in rent for a college home that sits empty and alone.
We don’t know when we will return to SLO as the uncertainty around Cal Poly classes grows each day, and the house we lived in becomes a bigger and bigger waste of money. We’re some of the luckier kids that can continue to pay for a home we don’t live in but it turns out that seems to be the case for most of SLO.
My project partner Evelyn Duffy was able to get in contact with her old landlord who then introduced us to Camille and Owen Schagerlie, two recent Cal Poly graduates who now work for Keller Williams Realty Central Coast in San Luis Obispo that I had the privilege of learning from. While COVID-19 ravages the nation and the housing crisis across the country continues as people are fired from their jobs and unable to make rent, leading to rent strikes and the loss of income for many landlords (there’s a great article about the rent war by a New York Real Estate publication here). San Luis Obispo has been an exception.
While getting ahold of our two sources was difficult, once we finally did, the interview lasted around three hours, longer than I thought would be possible to have a conversation about rent. The couple was friendly and personable, making conversation easy for the four of us, but I couldn’t help bringing my own opinions surrounding rent amnesty to the conversation.
I have stood on the side of the renters while watching this all unfold, wholeheartedly supporting those unable and unwilling to pay rent while admittedly knowing very little about the real estate world. I shared resources on how to rent strike and read up on it at websites like rentstrike.org, but after speaking with Camille and Owen, I was introduced to the other side of the argument in the way I could sympathize.
“If we are no longer holding people to rent contracts what are other contracts we are not going to hold people to.”
Owen explained a great argument when talking about continuing to pay rent “When you sign a contract it’s an obligation that you, as a tenant, are signing into. You are agreeing contractually, and morally, that you are binding yourself to pay rent for a full year. So by signing that contract, you are supposed to continue in that contract. As far as canceling rent or not paying rent, I don’t think that’s a good idea because that muddies the waters in regards to contracts. If we are no longer holding people to rent contracts what are other contracts we are not going to hold people to. So it really does cause a slippery slope and we don’t want that. I think there is also a moral obligation to pay rent once you agree to it.”
It doesn’t seem that people avoiding paying rent seems to be an issue in San Luis Obispo after hearing that from individuals directly involved in the industry. They explained that San Luis Obispo is in a privileged position where many members of our community have not suffered from a loss of wages and an inability to pay rent. Those who have, are easily replaced. Mustang News reported on a student who lost his part-time employment and now struggles to make the money he needs for rent, but his landlord and other rental agencies do not suffer from this income insecurity. “I think that the vacancy rate in San Luis Obispo is historically 2 or 3 percent which means that there is only 2 or 3 percent of homes that are vacant at any given time. This is because there’s such a high demand for housing and the amount of people that want to live in San Luis Obispo is higher than the number of housing units available for sale.” Owen informed me that even “With Cal Poly shutting down, if it’s a long shutdown and students are really not coming back, it might take a hit on that vacancy rate… maybe shoot up to 10%” With so much mobility and an influx of remote workers moving to San Luis Obispo, it’s unlikely that these empty homes and apartments will stay empty for long.
This project illuminated many things for me, but most importantly showed me the privileged housing bubble we live in here in San Luis Obispo. While students and lower-income individuals already struggle to pay the ridiculously high prices of living here in SLO, the loss of their income only hurts the renters and not the landlords in the area. There is such a high demand for housing in San Luis Obispo that even when one person loses their housing, there are another ten waiting to take their spot and more than able to pay the high prices.
This doesn’t mean that the housing market remains unchanged as Owen, Camille, and the rest of California realtors have been working under new parameters while showing homes and helping buyers. While this did not resonate with me, Evelyn was able to gain a different understanding as she took on the video and interactive portion of this project. “Both of my parents own a real estate business together in Colorado (Duffy Realty) and my brother and sister have recently gotten their licenses which made me even more curious about how the business works here compared to back home. Hearing about different scenarios like the new requirements for open houses and touring really surprised me since the Colorado real estate laws aren’t currently changing. State by state it’s really interesting for me to hear the differences.”
Evelyn’s family has yet to see changes in the way they work, or been affected by rent strikes, but the real estate landscape has yet to see the complete effects of COVID-19. This project has been a way to open my eyes to the reality of things here in San Luis Obispo and I feel lucky to be able to see the privilege surrounding our community and gain an understanding of the housing market model that I exist in here in SLO while creating a resource for student renters to look to while navigating these odd times.