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Former Apartments Downtown tenant wins lawsuit

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | SEPTEMBER 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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With a seemingly constant war between local landlords and tenants, a recent court decision may have area college students climbing the stairs to justice.

Sophie Borer, a former Iowa City Kirkwood Community College student, was given $4,250 from Apartments Downtown Inc. on Sept. 4.

“It’s about standing up for myself,” she said.  “When one person does it, other people will follow.”

In mid-2012, Borer sued the Iowa City-based property-management company for charging her more than $600 for bringing her dog into her Dodge Street apartment for a few minutes.

In the few months following the incident, she was charged $240 in late fees and fines, before her father, Mark Borer, stepped in.

“I couldn’t believe that my daughter and her roommates were being take advantage of like that,” Mark Borer said. “And when I heard the same family and same business were doing this, I knew I had to get involved because they were screwing the students over big time.”

Christopher Warnock, an attorney with the Iowa City Tenants’ Project, took on Sophie Borer’s case after being contacted by her father.

The project has taken aim at the James Clark-headed housing conglomerate, which own Apartments Downtown, Apartments Near Campus, and Michael’s Properties.

As one of Iowa City’s largest property-management firms, the family’s companies have more than $100 million in assessed property, Warnock said, noting that it is almost impossible for students to avoid renting from them. Additionally, he said, many students often give in to paying the fines rather than taking the measures to court.

“Honestly, I wasn’t really willing to go to court right away,” Sophie Borer said.  “I have never won a case, let alone been to court.  I kind of felt like the guinea pig.”

In the Borer case, Magistrate Karen Egerton of Judicial District 6, which includes Johnson County, ruled on Sept. 3 that landlords were not allowed to charge tenants unless their pet caused damage to the apartment. 

In the Landlord Tenant Act, Warnock said, a landlord can require that the tenant get rid of pets if they are not permitted under the lease, but a landlord can never use fines to punish those tenants for breaking the lease or charge them fees if there are no actual damages.

The Iowa City Tenants’ Project, a nonprofit, works with individuals seeking class actions and small-claims assistance who are committed to tenants’ rights and to fair play for both tenants and landlords. 

Warnock said the project’s goal is to educate tenants and landlords about their legal rights and responsibilities.

For almost three years, Warnock said, he has been fighting the Clark family and other powerful local landlords.

Warnock is fighting 12 cases, six involving UI students. He said the most common charges include dealing with landlords who have levied tenants with what he labeled illegal penalties and fees — charges greater than or without any damages, unknown vandalism, automatic carpet cleaning fees, and repair and maintenance overages, many of which violate the Landlord Tenant Act in Iowa.

Two University of Iowa seniors said they have also had related issues.

Nick Elsberg and his roommates called Apartments Downtown for help involving to a broken water heater.

After two visits by the maintenance crew, the problem had yet to be fixed. After speaking with the landlord’s office several times, Elsberg said, he was told the management were not obligated to fix it, leaving them without hot water for a week.

Under the Iowa Landlord Tenant Act, landlords shall maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord.

“I’m under the impression that they think we are a bunch of oblivious and ignorant college students and they try to exploit that,” UI senior Scott Goedken said. 

The next step Warnock hopes to make is to have more judges realize the leases some Iowa City landlords distribute to tenants violate the act. 

He also said he hopes this victory will influence the outcome of the other cases.

Iowa City attorney Joe Holland, who represents the Clark family, said they do not agree with the judicial decisions.

“We look at the leases on a regular basis,” he said. “We evaluate them even though we may not agree with the decisions made in court, and we will review the leases for 2014.”

With many of the cases in Iowa City, he said, a higher court will evaluate most of them.


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