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Solidarity for economic justice

BY GUEST OPINION | JANUARY 27, 2011 7:10 AM

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Unpaid wages and unreturned deposits — these problems are nothing new to many people, and Iowa City is no exception.

Renters in Iowa City often sign a lease and keep the property in good condition, only to have a huge percentage of the deposit taken out for questionable fees. In fact, many renters simply expect to have their deposit withheld by landlords, or at least a large portion of it.

Ambiguous wording in Iowa law regarding deposit return doesn’t make things any easier. Last month, the Iowa Independent reported on the legal limbo that swallows many tenants when they seek to regain their deposits: While landlords can charge occupants for any damages outside of normal wear and tear, the law does not define what constitutes wear and tear — or what doesn’t. These ambiguities become opportunities for landlords to fleece their tenants.

In September, a landlord in Cedar Rapids was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $728,000 in victim’s restitution. The judge in that case said he “squeezed an extra few hundred dollars from renters he thought were too economically vulnerable or unsophisticated to contest his claims.”

This, though despicable, is a rare instance of a landlord facing consequences for something that happens all too often. The Iowa Independent reported that while it is impossible to know exactly how many tenants have their deposits taken, Iowa Legal Aid faces high demand for help with the issue, and most landlords who steal deposits do not end up facing fines from the court.

Workers also face the threat of wage theft, a growing problem around the country and in Iowa. As with housing problems, the working poor are the most vulnerable.

A Des Moines Register article from last October highlighted the concerns many community members have about our state’s comparatively lax wage-theft penalties. Iowa’s laws place the burden of proof on the worker, reveal the identity of an employee filing a wage claim, and penalize repeated theft to a lesser extent than other states.

From shaving hours to not paying overtime, some employers are dealing with hard economic times at the expense of their workers. While these problems are disregarded by state and local officials, many of us cannot afford to wait.

What, then, are the options for people who can least afford to wait for a solution to socioeconomic problems? The Iowa City Solidarity Network is organizing to provide an alternative to inaction.

By working together with other renters and workers, people can accomplish things they would be unable to do alone. Alone, your only option may be to quit your job or find a new place to live.

However, if bosses or landlords know that you have the backing of a community and that there will be consequences for their actions, they are more likely to resolve issues appropriately and less likely to repeat these practices in the future.

The Iowa City Solidarity Network is not a service provider or a charity. Rather, it is a volunteer network of working people who believe in standing up for our rights. Our goal is to support people in the Iowa City area who are facing job and housing problems. If you are dealing with these kinds of problems, you don’t have to fight alone.

Join organizers from the Iowa City Solidarity Network on Jan. 30 from 4-6 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library to find out more about the solidarity network model and how you can get involved.

Daniel DeRock is a UI alum and an organizer with the Iowa CitySolidarity Network.


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