City should reconsider three-strikes eviction


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Even if students know their rights, an Iowa City ordinance can have them out with three strikes.

Evicted, specifically. The Feb. 21 “Don’t Get Evicted” lecture, an annual event held by Student Legal Services to help students learn their rights as tenants, stressed something in particular, given last year’s rise in disorderly house citations: Landlords in Iowa City are required to evict tenants who have three criminal violations.

While there’s nothing wrong with individual landlords setting them terms for eviction in their leases (provided those terms are legal), requiring landlords to evict tenants or lose control over their rental units is a step too far; it smacks of sanitizing measures that intrude into more aspects of life than necessary.

The local government has been attempting to amend Iowa City’s party-scene reputation for decades, by continually deterring and punishing various forms of raucous behavior. But every community assuredly encounters a vast number of unique circumstances, highlighting the importance of avoiding universal, homogenous sanctions.

But a housing ordinance passed in 2003 enforces just that.

Iowa City Ordinance 03-4082 offers eviction as the most attractive means for landlords to avoid the rental-permit suspension of a “nuisance property” — a rental property whose occupants have been issued criminal complaints on three separate occasions.

According to the ordinance, landlords may be issued a reduced-term rental permit (analogous to probation) if a criminal violation, ranging from terrorism to drug possession to disorderly house, is committed at one of their rental properties on two separate occasions.

At this point, the owner of the property is required to meet with both the city and the tenants responsible for what is called a “code compliance settlement meeting,” a meeting in which the relevant parties agree to take corrective action to avoid further code violations.

If the tenants fail to comply with the conditions of the settlement, for example, receiving another disorderly house ticket, the landlord faces suspension of his rental permit for up to 180 days. The ordinance also allows these sanctions to be applied an “entire dwelling unit” — in other words, an entire apartment complex.

The ordinance does define defenses the owner can cite in order to save his rental permit: execution of a property-management plan, or, just as easily, eviction of tenants — which allows landlords to collect rent from the tenants evicted, a provision established in the lease.

Gregory Bal, supervising attorney of UI’s Student Legal Services and the director of the “Don’t Get Evicted” lecture, is worried that these provisions may unfairly punish those uneducated about their rights. Students often seek advice from Student Legal Services when it is already too late.

“Sometimes, it’s unfortunate, students have come to us and say they’ve already pled guilty, then there’s nothing we can do,” Bal said. “A lot of times they didn’t even break the law, and they could have gotten off entirely.”

Several students have come to Bal believing their PAULA or disorderly house tickets were only as consequential as a traffic violation. “And they’re not,” Bal said. “They are criminal violations. And have you seen the PAULA tickets? They’re written on traffic tickets, so it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to just plead guilty, and pay it off like a traffic ticket.”

According to police statistics, the number of disorderly house citations written has tripled from 90 in 2007 to 273 in 2010. Disorderly house infringements are classified as “scheduled violations,” meaning city does not dismiss them as a rule, and judges have no discretion to minimize the fine or issue a deferred judgment. If there is enough evidence the defendant is guilty, he or she will be convicted without exception.

The ordinance claims that “chronic code violations have a negative impact on the quality of life, safety, and health of the neighborhoods where they are located,” making the argument that the city has an established interest in policing who lives in homes on city property. But code violations already come with their own penalties, and there are frequent shades of gray that require sensitive judgment, not blanket punishments — particularly when these punishments most affect those unaware of their rights and responsibilities.

The city should continue to facilitate and require landlord-tenant communication, but universal enforcement of eviction after three violations will not always be the most rational solution. The decision of what merits eviction should instead be at the discretion of the landlord, clearly stated in the lease, and with flexibility to evaluate the sanctions of each tenant on an individual basis.

Students should know their rights and stay within the law, but a double dose of punishment is unnecessary.

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