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Editorial: A victory for Iowa City renters

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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Some good news for Iowa students returning from spring break came in the form of a ruling issued by Judge Douglas Russell last week that declared many exploitative practices by Iowa City landlords to be illegal.

The 13-page ruling held that landlords cannot fine tenants for damages caused by others in housing, cannot charge tenants for carpet cleaning automatically once their leases have expired, and provisions that remove the liability of landlords when it comes to when it came to theft, injury, fire, etc., were illegal.

The lawsuit, brought by the Iowa City Tenant’s Project against Terry Barkalow, a local landlord with approximately 80 tenants, was also certified as class action by Russell, though the specific damages to be doled out to the plaintiffs has not yet been identified.

We concur with the ruling and also believe that this is a big milestone in the fight against landlords in a town that is rampant with shady, exploitative, and downright slimy leasing practices.

In particular, this case seems to reopen the door for a much bigger class action case brought against many of the Clark family, the largest off-campus provider of student housing in Iowa City, who own companies including Apartments Downtown. Their practices are almost identical to the ones recently ruled illegal by Russell. Should tenants succeed in changing the practices of companies such as Apartments Downtown, the whole leasing culture of Iowa City may be irrevocably altered.

It is a culture desperately in need of altering. Over the years, Iowa City landlords have operated with impunity as they have slammed their tenants with exorbitant fines, fees, and penalties for minor offenses such as bringing pets into the apartment for a few minutes or for acts of unknown vandalism perpetrated by outside assailants.

Last September, for example, Sophie Borer, a former Iowa City Kirkwood Community College student, won her case against Apartments Downtown. Borer had been charged more than $600 for bringing her dog into her Dodge Street apartment for a few minutes. A judge ruled that landlords could only charge tenants if their pets had caused damage to the facility, another win for Iowa City renters.

These fines clearly have little to do with the bare-bones operations of maintaining housing and are mostly an attempt by landlords to scam as much money as possible from their very vulnerable (and very young) clientele.

With a relative dearth of legal repercussions for these actions — most students opt just to pay the unfair fines — the Iowa City landlord community has essentially created a racket that leaves many students, also struggling with gargantuan tuition, tightening their already choked financial belts.

In extreme circumstances, letting these landlords run wild creates an atmosphere of entitlement and corruption, which leads to the worst abuses of both the financial and moral kind. This atmosphere was best demonstrated by the case of Elwyn Miller, an Iowa City landlord who was convicted of six counts of invasion of privacy after he was caught “peeping” on his tenants.

We believe that the Russell ruling is a crack in the foundation of many of Iowa City’s exploitative landlords, and we commend the Iowa City Tenant’s Project on standing up for the rights of average students and other renters against the shameful conditions they have been subjected to.


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