Local attorneys want students to understand their rights as tenants

BY KATIE HEINE | JULY 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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With thousands of students moving into apartments and houses in Iowa City this weekend and a lawsuit against one of the area's rental giants pending in court, local attorneys want students to understand their rights as tenants.

Students are often first-time renters, and they may not always be aware of what is and isn't legal regarding leases and landlords, says Christopher Warnock, an Iowa City attorney.

"Landlords are abusing students," said Warnock, who is representing local tenants in a lawsuit against Apartments Downtown Inc.

Warnock represented four plaintiffs in a court hearing on Tuesday who were allegedly wronged by what they claim was an illegal contract including a handful of clauses that free the landlord from paying certain damages.

A meeting between Warnock and attorneys representing Apartments Downtown may determine if the lawsuit goes class-action, allowing each case to be tried together.

But a few tips can help students avoid legal complexities all together.

"If it's illegal, it's not enforceable," Warnock said.

Damage done by vandals or a third party, in accordance to state statute, is supposed to be maintained by landlords. However, Warnock said, he has represented clients who were charged by Apartments Downtown for those very damages.

Tenants are also regularly wronged when it comes to cleaning costs, he said. The statute says at the end of a lease, landlords are responsible for inspecting the residence, itemizing damages, and judging normal wear and tear to extraordinary damages.

However, Warnock said often times no inspection is actually made, and landlords will automatically hold money from the deposit whether the carpet needs cleaning or not.

"It doesn't have to say automatic to be automatic," Warnock said.

Some of the most common issues renters run into involve security deposits and contracts, said Greg Bal, the supervising attorney for University of Iowa Student Legal Services, which deals with students' rental problems.

When people move into a new residence, Bal recommended keeping a copy of the check-in sheet, and marking all pre-existing damages or wear and tear.

"Document in writing as much detail as possible about everything that is wrong with the apartment," Bal said.

He also advised renters to take photographs, including the date stamp to ensure all damages are documented.

Bal said he has lost only one case related to apartment-related issues, and he has recovered about $19,000 for students.

Student Legal Services appeared in court 101 times from April to June this year in cases related to apartment issues.

"It's amazing — the damages are almost always just a few dollars more than the deposit," Bal said.

UI Student Government President Elliott Higgins said tenant rights is an issue he's passionate about, and he's been working to raise the funding to Student Legal Services to increase the attorney to student ratio.

Higgins previously served as liaison to the Iowa City City Council and worked closely with councilors to amend a few clauses that remind tenants to provide a forwarding address.

"My main concern was security deposits and landlords illegally withholding them," he said.

Warnock said he plans to continue pushing his case to qualify as a class-action lawsuit because many local tenants are suffering from common "injuries," and a class-action suit would be representative of the larger tenant population.

"This is a key issue for students because everybody basically has to rent," he said.

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