MEDCO Exec. Director to retire as COVID-related student housing disputes persist

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Robert Brennan, the executive director of Maryland Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental economic development agency, will retire this summer.

In an interview, Brennan said he had been ready to retire since last year, but decided to continue working when the pandemic hit.

“When I saw what was coming down the pike, I didn’t think it was responsible to leave the organization,” he told Maryland Matters.

Brennan told the board last week that he intends to retire by the end of July. The board will put together a search committee made up of four or five board members and develop requirements for candidates, perhaps with the help of a search consultant, Scott Dorsey, the board chair of MEDCO, told Maryland Matters. Since this announcement is “brand new,” there is no set timeline yet, he said.

“Had it not been for COVID, I think [Brennan] might have decided to move into the next phase of his life sooner,” Dorsey said.

With COVID-19 vaccines slowly rolling out, Brennan said he thinks now is the right time to retire.

“I knew we were going to have significant issues with student housing and some other things, but today I see a path to get all that behind us and things will get back to normal,” said Brennan, who has been executive director of MEDCO since 2004. “So this is really more of an appropriate time for me to rewire myself and to get into retirement and change my lifestyle.”

His announcement comes after a long dispute over student housing leases with MEDCO-owned properties at Maryland’s public universities. Hundreds of students had requested cancellation before the school year began, but it took four months for MEDCO to reach agreements with The University of Maryland College Park and Towson University that offers some flexibility in the leases.

During a joint legislative budget hearing on MEDCO last Thursday, lawmakers revealed that some students are still left in the dark.

“I appreciate that you were able to reach a resolution for maybe 70% of folks stuck in those leases, but I have a dozen emails in front of me right now of folks who are still in limbo, folks who have not attended a single in-person class since campus had shut down this time last year and are still stuck and locked into leases,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel).

According to the agreements, UMD students who tried to cancel their year-long leases by noon of August 12 will be released from their fall semester obligation. If they had already paid for fall semester, that will turn into housing credit for the spring term.

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) asked if it would be possible to carry over housing credit to the 2021/2022 academic school year, or whenever those students return to campus.

“We’re still working through some of the exceptions that have come about as the settlement agreement was rolled out,” said Jeffrey Wilke, director of bond financing for MEDCO.

For UMD students who had not paid for the fall semester and do not want to live on campus in the spring, they can only be released from the financial obligation of their spring leases if they find another student to take their place.

But the agreement between MEDCO and UMD was finalized at the end of December, just prior to the start of spring semester, making it difficult for students to quickly find a replacement, especially before rent was due Jan. 1.

“This just doesn’t seem like the best market strategy or like it’s going to be successful overall,” Elfreth said. “I guess you can hear my frustration.”

There are a handful of UMD students struggling to find replacement tenants, and they have not received much help from UMD or MEDCO in getting names of those who may be interested in taking over their lease, said Hannah Aalemansour, a student at UMD College Park.

Towson University and MEDCO reached a slightly different agreement. Towson students living in Paca and Tubman houses who did not move in and have not paid will be released from their housing contracts. Those who made payments for the fall will get housing credit that they can use for a MEDCO property in a future semester.

“Some families feel they now have a ‘useless credit’ for future rent in a MEDCO building,” Scott Depuy, a parent of a Towson student, said in an email. “These are families that paid for the Fall 2020, are not on campus for Spring 2021, and have plans to live off-campus next year or even graduate.”

However, similar to UMD, Towson students living at Millennium Hall can only be released from spring leases if they can find a replacement tenant. This is because each student has their own room in Millennium Hall, deeming it a safe environment to live in, Brennan told lawmakers. On the other hand, Paca and Tubman housing had two students per room.

However, this is still an issue for seniors who will not have a chance to use their housing credit next year.

“We will make accommodations if they’re a graduating senior,” Brennan told lawmakers.

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