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Council passes tenants-rights amendment

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MAY 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa City City Council unanimously passed an amendment Tuesday night that would require landlords to make tenant rights information more readily available to students and first-time renters.

The Tuesday evening vote is the first of three considerations needed to enact the change.

During Elliot Higgins' tenure as the City Council liaison, the now-University of Iowa Student Government president proposed amending the city code to better educate students on their rights as tenants.

"Why should the tenants have to jump through hoops to get money that is legally theirs?" said Greg Bal, the supervising attorney for UI Student Legal Services, who often deals with students' rental problems.

The proposal requires landlords to include information on reobtaining security deposits, documenting the state of the unit before and after, and providing a forwarding address for the deposit after the tenant's lease is up in the Informational Disclosure and Acknowledgment Form.

"Any type of information is always great for students and first-time renters, but there is definitely a bigger problem going on in Iowa City than just this," said Molly Burke, a former UI student who is involved in a pending class-action lawsuit against Apartments Downtown for damages following a burglary after last winter break.

A judge recently added three more plaintiffs to the lawsuit, which claims Apartments Downtown targets renters with unfair and illegal rental practices.

Christopher Warnock, the plaintiffs' attorney, called Higgins' plan "naïve."

Though Warnock doesn't oppose the measure to increase education, he said he's concerned city officials may use it as a feeble way to claim any problem has already been addressed.

"It doesn't do you any good to be informed about something if the landlord blatantly breaks the law," he said.

Higgins said students' right to their safety deposits and to better document their residence before and following their lease are some things new tenants may not know. After he had heard of others being taken advantage of by "unscrupulous landlords," Higgins decided to seek a way to help renters.

"Students oftentimes don't have a good understanding of the process because they're often the first time renting, they're vulnerable, and they're easily taken advantage of," he said.

Bal said he has students approach him frequently throughout the year regarding tenant-and-landlord issues. In 2010, roughly 323 students sought help from legal services about tenant/landlord problems — 60 percent of those issues concerning their security deposits.

City Councilor Mike Wright said with many housing codes enforced at the state level, the city's abilities are limited.

"There's only so much we can do," he said. "I hope it helps."

Bal said Higgins approached him last fall, the first time a student government official had come to him to propose official action with the city.

Some changes Higgins wants to make cannot be done at the city level because the codes regarding issues such as security deposits are at the state level, said City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes.

But Higgins said this is just the start of changing regulations for renters. He plans to continue efforts in the next academic year with lobbying efforts to state legislators advocating for better codes for renters.


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