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Amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic, UC Irvine students are asking the Irvine Co. and Irvine City Council to potentially suspend rent and remove costly lease break fees. 

Many students have moved back home. Others are out of work and struggling to pay rent.

They are demanding some sort of rent relief or help getting out of their leases.

To date, the Irvine Company and city council members have largely ignored their pleas.

In a previous article, Voice of OC reported that students have been speaking up about the costly fees since March, asking for the city council to intercede on their behalf with the Irvine Co. who continues to be largely unresponsive to student complaints. 

At the University Town Center, one of the primary private student housing facilities located near UCI, the average lease break costs between six and eight thousand dollars in a one time payment, according to the Irvine Company Resident Handbook. Some students have reported the costs to be as high as $15,000.  

The Irvine Company declined to comment. 

Students frustrations with city leadership culminated last week, with a protest outside of Mayor Christina Shea’s home. 

The protest was organized by a UCI student group called UCI For Cost of Living Adjustment, also known as UCI4Cola. 

Their primary focus is to have the city council declare a rent suspension for the duration of the pandemic, but also called for the Irvine Co. to house homeless in empty apartments and remove the lease break fees. 

“The Irvine Co. began charging students extortion lease break fees that exceed the cost of tuition,” said Courtney Echols, a spokesperson for UCI4Cola and a PhD student at UCI working towards her law degree. “The landlords and corporations are continuing to profit while the people continue to suffer.” 

Shea and Mark Newgent, a candidate for the Irvine Unified School District board, watched the protest from Shea’s balcony while a row of cars and protestors filed down the narrow street in a video posted to Newgent’s Facebook page.

In the video, which Newgent live streamed on his page, Shea said that the protestors were scaring children in her neighborhood and her dog, who just recently had surgery, while asking for free rent. 

“They’re not children anymore, and when you become an adult you work. They’re obviously not working because they’re out driving around threatening people,” Shea said in the video. 

Shea also followed up on the video with a statement on her Facebook page, saying she could not support any money coming from the general fund to help students with rent payments and that she had “little compassion” for the protestors. 

Healthy young people can get work they can find their way and should. When they are growing up yes their parents have the responsibility to provide a roof over their head and three meals a day and clothes,” Shea wrote. “When they become adults it’s then their responsibility to find their path in life, and not stay childlike still wanting everyone to care for them.”

Shea recommended that students seek work at Amazon and said that there are plenty of open jobs to go to, also saying that previous generations had faced greater difficulties, citing both World Wars and the Vietnam War.  

According to presentations by city staff, over 11,000 people have been furloughed or laid off in Irvine since the start of the COVID-19 shutdown. Restaurants and retail positions, traditional jobs for many college students, accounted for nearly 2,800 of those positions. 

According to a survey published by the UCI student government that received almost 800 responses, nearly 80% of student respondents reported they had lost their jobs over the last three months due to COVID, and over 78% said they were struggling to pay rent. 

Shea’s post received over 300 comments, some from residents who supported Shea’s position and on the other side students arguing that not all students were calling for free rent, but that many needed help with their lease break payments. 

They are just lazy kids and want to get support from the society so they don’t need to contribute,” said commenter Elva Chao. 

The majority of comments from students called Shea out of touch, and said that she wasn’t connected with the student population. 

“Your people are scared of a pandemic, unemployment crisis, housing crisis, of straight up DYING, all at the SAME TIME. And your response to boost people’s morale is to tell them to get over it?” said commenter Woo Jin Kim. 

“You say you spend countless hours talking to students, but you’ve driven such a hard line between yourself and them, it’s hard to believe you have.” 

Some commenters asked what Shea’s opinion on the lease breaks were, but Voice of OC did not see a response from Shea to any of those comments. 

“That’s what most students are asking for, and you don’t seem to be addressing this,” commenter Chloe Cuberly said. “I’ve had a job since I was 15 and now have 3, I am taking over the maximum number of units in school, and I still can’t afford to live in Irvine and pay UCI.” 

“I was lucky enough to not live in Irvine Company apartments and was able to cancel my lease. But my peers are struggling just like the rest of the world because there is a situation nobody saw coming.”

Shea engaged several times with commenters praising her post and calling her response appropriate, but Voice of OC could not find any signs of engagement with students under her post. 

Two nights ago, Shea posted that while she was still not in support of paying rent for students, that the council would discuss the item at their upcoming meeting. 

“I believe it’s time for our City Council to weigh in,” Shea wrote. “Silence from members of our Council creates distrust.”

In a phone call with Voice of OC, Shea said that she agendized the item because she wanted to give them a public forum to express their concerns. She also said she felt that it was UCI’s responsibility to expand on campus housing to help students, and that students should not direct their anger at the Irvine Co. 

“I support free speech and people’s right to protest, but I find it inappropriate that they come to my personal residence,” Shea said. “I think it’s important to bring down the rhetoric, the noise and have a discussion, I’m very open to do that.”

Shea said that while the request of a rent suspension “would bankrupt the city in less than six months,” she wanted to have a discussion with the rest of the council on what their options were. 

“This is a collaborative discussion, I should not be the focal point, I’m just one vote,” Shea said. “It’s a very complicated and difficult conversation to have, because there’s no easy answer to this.But I’m very sensitive to these students.”

“There has to be a fine line where we show empathy and try to work toward reasonable solutions.”

Shea said she believed the protest was orchestrated by political opponents in an effort to hurt her chances in the upcoming November election. 

“I’ve become the focus. I know there’s a political movement at UCI, who were part of this recall against me, so I understand what’s happening. It’s a political attack on me moving forward if I were to run for reelection,” Shea said. “They’re not focusing their anger on anyone else on the council just me.”

Echols denied any association with a political party, stating the protest was made up of “students and residents who are broke, hungry, fed up, and tired of being exploited.”

The council has taken several votes regarding renter protections and an eviction moratorium amid COVID-19, but have voted against passing an ordinance, with the vote breaking down along party lines in a 3-2 vote at their last meeting. 

Shea has said from the dais there is no need to pass an ordinance compelling landlords to follow those rules because the pandemic is coming to an end soon and that they’ve seen compliance from the city’s primary landowner, the Irvine Co.

“We hear that it’s being followed,” Shea said at the city council meeting last week. “Now that we’re starting to come out of the COVID-19 anyway, I’m not sure why we’d want to get into such a punitive position with landlords.”

The city’s current resolution “strongly encourages” landlords not to evict any residents, but does not hold legal enforcement power, according to city attorney Jeff Melching. 

Echols also said that while UCI4Cola has submitted multiple comments to the city council regarding a potential rent suspension, none have been read in full during the meeting. 

“The city clerk will just summarize our message, at most a one sentence summary. It’s not even the equivalent of a Tweet,” Echols said. “They were accepting comments as emails, and in an email you’re not limited to 500 characters. The city clerk read other emails in full regarding the cemetery. We sent emails and they didn’t read one of them.” 

She said that the lack of their comments has led to Shea manipulating their narrative without the ability to respond. 

“The mayor has been very dismissive to mischaracterize our issues and make a mockery out of our request,” Echols said. 

Councilmember Melissa Fox, the sole vote against the resolution, said that residents need protection from more than just the Irvine Company, and that she’s heard from many residents who are under the threat of eviction or a rent hike. 

“We can give peace of mind to a large part of our residency,” Fox said at the meeting. “This is not a punitive measure, it’s protective.” 

“Our residents are begging us for support.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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