Ask the Attorney Q&A
Thank you for your question. We know that this is a widespread issue among our graduate student community.
A lease is a binding contract for both the landlord and the tenant. As long as the apartment or house is habitable, the tenant is contractually obligated to fulfill the terms of the lease, including paying rent, whether you are living in the unit or not. Generally speaking, there are only two exceptions: (a) if the landlord agrees to amend or terminate the lease or (b) the law allows you to amend or terminate your lease.
Unfortunately, there has not been a change in Maryland law that allows you to terminate your lease due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Hogan’s order prevents tenants from being evicted but does not help those who have left apartments because of the crisis. Given how quickly the situation is changing, there is always a chance future orders or legislation provide assistance for this issue, but it is certainly not a guarantee.
At this moment, you may be thinking (or yelling), “But this is a global health pandemic! I should not have to pay rent where I'm not living!” We agree with you, but the law may not. Though there is very limited case law on this issue, courts in New York did not find grounds for a tenant to stop paying rent when there was an outbreak of scarlet fever in their apartment building unless the landlord’s negligence caused the infectious disease to be introduced to the building. Majestic Hotel Co. v. Eyre, 53 A.D. 273, 274 (App. Div. 1900). If courts in Maryland follow similar reasoning, it will be difficult to argue that your landlord was negligent or contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.
Absent any new legislation, you should review your lease to determine if there is a mechanism within their lease that defines terms to end their lease early (e.g. lease termination clauses, early termination penalties, assignment provisions, etc.). Even if there are no provisions or clauses within your lease that allow you to terminate the lease, you can still attempt to negotiate a lease termination with your landlord (though your landlord is not required to do so). For more information about breaking your lease, click here.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have additional questions or to discuss your situation. Please schedule an appointment here.
Please stay tuned for next week's “Ask the Attorney” that will explain Maryland’s temporary ban on evictions and what that means for students who get behind (or stop paying) their rent.
William Zachariah Mundy, Esq.
Graduate Student Legal Aid Office (GLAO)
The Graduate Student Legal Aid Office provides a wide range of free and confidential legal services to the University of Maryland College Park graduate students who are currently enrolled and pay the graduate student activity fee. GLAO is funded by graduate student fees allocated by the Graduate Student Government. Our mission is to meet the critical legal needs of our diverse graduate student population in a culturally competent, compassionate, and supportive setting.
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