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Group moves forward with Apartments Downtown lawsuit

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | JUNE 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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Renters living in and near downtown Iowa City could soon see renewed relief in relations with their landlords, all while footing a smaller bill for repairs, thanks in part to efforts by a handful of local lawyers and judges.

They’re hoping their efforts, a continuation of 2010 and 2011 lawsuits, can change the housing culture in the city for the better.

The Iowa City Tenants Project, which includes attorney Christopher Warnock, has taken aim at the James Clark-headed housing conglomerate, which own Apartments Downtown, Apartments Near Campus, and Michael’s Properties. The Tenants Project alleges that the firm’s standard leases are illegal and push unnecessary charges on renters, largely made up of University of Iowa students.

The current three lawsuits accuse Apartments Downtown Inc. of violating tenants’ rights by charging automatic cleaning fees, requiring tenants to pay for landlord-mandated cleaning areas, charging tenants for damages they didn’t cause, and overcharging for basic maintenance services.

“The Clarks, who everyone thinks are pillars in the community, are in fact breaking the law on a massive scale,” Warnock said. “It’s a little game with them on how they can soak up your security deposit the fastest. They’re brutal.”

Warnock, who largely represents UI student renters in his law office, said the Clark family’s housing projects hold between 1,500 and 2,000 tenants in all, many of which are illegally charged fines.

In the past and in recent weeks, he said, he has worked with students who say they are too nervous about facing their landlords head-on for fear of additional charges.

But the charges, which can range from $10 per light bulb to $100 per hour a tenant is not moved out of an apartment, although not exclusive to the Clark’s properties, are the most common as they are the largest apartment owner in and near downtown.

Warnock stressed the need for future educational outlets for students, including know-your-rights classes and educational videos.

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently overturned Judge Paul Miller’s ruling ¬†against the trenants and reinstated the Tenant Project’s class-action suits, which means the class-action suits against the family can move forward.

Greg Bal, the supervising attorney for University of Iowa Student Legal Services, said the practice of overcharginrg tenants and lack of mandated maintenance is also a result of the lack of renter-rights education.

“Students are at a disadvantage,” he said. “If it’s in the lease, they may think they are legally obligated to pay those [fines].”

Bal said for students, going to court with landlords can go well beyond the intimidation aspect. Many students, he said, have troubles paying the $100 court costs and up to $100 more for legal representation.

But Bal said things appear to be on the upswing of improvement.

In the past six years, in which the service has taken on roughly 30 landlord-tenant cases, only two have been lost in favor of the landlords.

UISG President Katharine Valde said despite the group’s decision to shelve plans after running into legal roadblocks for a landlord rating website, the issue has not gone away.

“I think that the most important thing is finding a lot of students who have been in the same position,” she said about the landlord battles.

For UI senior Lara Kenik, the decision to rent an Apartments Downtown building came down to finding a location that was close to campus and having only heard about it. But her experience with the group, she said, has been nearly anything but positive, and she is fed up with the lack of landlord maintenance and security.

“I actually had my rent money stolen out of my apartment,” she said. “[They] changed the locks for free, but it had to have been someone who lived there before or worked there [who took the money].

“‚Ķ We are NOT living with them again.”


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