WATERVILLE — A local woman who has a history of leasing a rental unit to Colby College students said that she was put in a tough situation after a group of students told her they needed to get out of their lease.

Jennifer Bergeron said she has a unit in town that she rents to 10 students. They approached her recently to say that they had to back out of their lease, which they signed by May. In the eight years she has leased living space to Colby students, she has never had any student break the terms of the rental agreement.

The college said that students are required to live in college housing, with limited exceptions.

“Given the elevated risk this year, we are keenly aware of our obligation to protect the safety of our broader community and we are being even more careful about our practices,” the college said. “The best way to mitigate risk is through our robust testing and contact tracing program and we have made significant investments to make that possible.”

Construction progresses Tuesday on the Lockwood Hotel, left, in downtown Waterville. To provide more space for student housing, a hundred students will reside in the hotel that is slated to be finished this fall. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file photo Buy this Photo

With that, the college said that having students in neighborhoods and “not participating fully in our program” could put people in the Waterville community and surrounding areas at risk.

Efforts to reach Colby students were successful, but none wanted to provide their name for fear of retaliation.

Colby students need to have permission to move off campus. One of those who had to break the lease said that the college denied about 75 applicants asking for permission to live off campus during the last process. The college did not respond to a request asking how the application process and selection work.

“We went to the school when we got the opportunity to live in the house we were offered,” one of the students said. “We got verbal approval, told we should be all set and decided to sign the lease and make a down payment.”

Bergeron said that she typically offers her dual-unit to up to 10 students. She has other rental units, but this particular property she reserves for students only. The rent runs from August through May. She said that this year, as in previous years, students typically sign leases with her by April.

“What students were verbally told by the school was different,” Bergeron said. “Every single year, they’re given permission. I’ve done this for eight years and never, ever, ever has this happened.”

The college said that students were told, as they are every year, that they should not make off-campus housing commitments unless or until they receive final approval: “This month, the college informed the students who had applied that, because Colby does have enough housing, the only students granted off-campus housing approval were those who had documented medical needs for accommodation.”

Bergeron said that after watching what other landlords had done for their student tenants at other schools, she allowed them to break their lease, but kept their security deposit.

“I blame Colby more than I blame (the students),” Bergeron said. “This year they’re being told that because of coronavirus, this is being done to keep them safe. How is campus safer than being in a private house?”

The student said that though he did lose his $800 deposit for leaving his lease, he is only upset with the situation. He said that he will be living on-campus now with a few friends coming from out of state.

“That was very generous of (Bergeron),” the student said. “A lot of us assumed that we were out the majority of the money. She easily had the right to say ‘you signed it, you owe me,’ but didn’t. We’re very appreciative of her. Otherwise, we would have been out about $5,000.”

The student said that the college waited until nearly a week before he and his friends were expected to pay rent to their landlord for the month of August. Though he understands the college’s reason for doing this, he said that the option to live in the Lockwood Hotel in downtown, which is being used to house 100 Colby students during the academic year, contradicts what their goal is.

“The fact that they’re keeping us safe but putting 100 kids back into the community (at the Lockwood hotel) … it would just be safer for many to live in a private house,” he said.

The college said that as the upcoming school year nears, the health and safety of the Waterville community is being looked at “with full consideration.”

“Having students in Colby housing significantly facilitates our testing and contact tracing capabilities as well as our accountability measures — all core components of our comprehensive plan for reopening the campus to our students, faculty and staff.”

Bergeron disagrees with this rationale, saying that if she were a parent to these students, she would not feel comfortable with them living on campus.

“I was upset and they’re not even my kids,” Bergeron said. “(I don’t understand) how campus is safer than living off campus.”

As of now, the college does not have any numbers on how many students are expected to live in campus housing during the academic year and will not have an exact number until the start of the semester.

“Our students have been incredibly enthusiastic about returning to Mayflower Hill and Waterville, and we expect that our residence halls will be fully occupied in the coming semester,” according to a statement from the college. “Colby is proactive and deliberate about making a positive impact on the local economy and we are committed to continuing to support it.”

The college added that having 300 students living on Main Street in the hotel and at the Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons will benefit local businesses. Additionally, about 1,000 staff members and faculty who will be returning to campus will play a role in supporting the central Maine economy.

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