Apartments Downtown leases ruled illegal

BY BEN MARKS | JULY 09, 2015 5:00 AM

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Apartments Downtown, the largest housing provider in Iowa City, has been found guilty of violating Iowa’s landlord-tenant laws.

Sixth District Court Judge Chad Kepros ruled Wednesday the lease used by Apartments Downtown between 2010 and 2014 illegally charged thousands of students for mandatory carpet cleaning, penalties, and other set damages.

Apartments Downtown is owned by the Clark family, who also owns Apartment Near Campus and Apartments At Iowa, making the company the largest landlord in Iowa City.

The ruling was the light at the end of a long tunnel for attorney Christopher Warnock, who began the lawsuit five years ago on behalf of several tenants.

“This is the end of the case in terms of liability; all that’s left is to be found is the damages,” Warnock said.

In the ruling, Kepros declared several lease provisions were “illegal and should not have been included in the standard lease.”

This included a mandatory carpet-cleaning fee, regardless of the condition of the carpet, provisions that put the responsibility for maintenance onto tenants, and several other illegal charges.

Kepros also certified the lawsuit as class action. Since every lease from 2010 onward was identical, Warnock said, it made more sense to have a single case rather than 10,000 individual ones.

A person cannot join a class-action lawsuit; instead anyone who was a renter from Apartments Downtown from 2010 to 2014 is automatically included in the suit and will receive compensation depending on the damages found.

Warnock believes a little more than 6,000 tenants are included in the lawsuit, and with a couple hundred dollars per tenant, he estimates damages could reach at least $1 million.

However, if punitive damages are awarded, which could be up to three months’ rent, this could drastically increase the total damages, although Warnock said punitive damages are much harder to obtain.

Although the Clark family owns numerous companies, the lawsuit is specifically against Apartments Downtown, which could not be reached for comment as of Wednesday afternoon.

Any renter who is leased through Apartment Near Campus or Apartments At Iowa is not part of the class action lawsuit.

However, if renters from Apartments Near Campus or one of the other units is willing to be a plaintiff, Warnock said, they could start a new case, a relatively simple matter now that the identical Apartments Downtown leases have been found illegal.

The ruling stated that the court found a previous case, also led by Warnock, against another Iowa City landlord to be “persuasive.”

In March 2014, 6th District Court Judge Douglas Russell ruled against landlord Tracey Barkalow, declaring several aspects of the lease illegal. Barkalow’s lease at the time was nearly identical to Apartment Downtown’s leases and included the same mandatory carpet cleaning and penalties.

Warnock has two other cases pending against Apartment Downtown in the Iowa Supreme Court.

As part of the group the Iowa Tenants Project, Warnock has filed a number of cases against many Iowa City landlords; however, he said he doesn’t have a grudge against landlords specifically.

“It’s not about landlords being evil or anything, it’s just they’ve gotten away with a lot,” he said. “The students and the people who live here for a short time need a place to live, so we need landlords.

Then the whole town is dependent on students for the economy, so it’s very important to not have all this anger and exploitation.”

While a ruling has been issued, the Clark family have 30 days to appeal, which Warnock said he expects they will do, and an appeal probably take to six months to a year.

“This has never been about money for either us or our plaintiffs; it’s about making things better for the tenants,” he said.

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