Hundreds of college students who rent private apartments while attending Iowa’s three public universities routinely are being taken advantage of by landlords who unfairly withhold security deposits that might be owed back to the students.
It happens because the students are transient, usually moving after graduation before their lease expires; do not keep track of their expenses; and, in some instances, do not even know they are being charged fees they might not owe.
“We figured we would get about a quarter of the deposit back,” said Cody Goodwin, 22, a former tenant of Apartments Downtown, Iowa City’s largest housing provider. “Our landlord kept it all and gave us no explanation why.”
Goodwin and students in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls – home to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa – said in interviews they and many of their fellow students often were frustrated getting back security deposits designed to cover damage tenants cause at an apartment, and dealing with landlord charges they did not expect.
The tenants’ complaints over the past few years cover a broad range: An Iowa City landlord who charged tenants for automatic carpet cleaning and damages resulting from burglaries. An Ames landlord charging an ISU student a late fee for accidentally sending a check written for an amount that was 2 cents under the monthly rent. A Cedar Falls landlord charging a UNI student for wall damage caused by flooding.
Those examples only scratch the surface.
“Students move a lot and don’t know much about renting,” Iowa City attorney Christopher Warnock said. “Landlords take advantage of that.”
Warnock is the man behind the Iowa Tenants Project, a service offering information to landlords and tenants to promote equitable cooperation between the two. Warnock also takes on legal cases as part of the project, representing landlords and tenants on a pro bono or reduced fee basis.
He was one of the attorneys in a successful lawsuit by tenants against Apartments Downtown in Iowa City. Johnson County District Judge Chad Kepros granted a summary judgment against Apartments Downtown on July 8, ruling that a lease Apartments Downtown used from 2010 through 2014 had several illegal provisions.
Those included: charging tenants for automatic carpet cleaning, fining tenants for damage to hallways and stairwells outside of their apartment, and requiring tenants to go to unreasonable lengths to clean their apartment.
Judge Kepros also granted a class action certification, which could mean Apartments Downtown, owned by James Clark and his family, owes damages to thousands of individuals who rented from them under an illegal lease. Further, several landlords in Iowa City use a similar lease so the ruling could have major implications for renting practices in the city, Warnock said.
“The Clarks are seen as the leaders in Iowa City and everyone else follows their lead,” Warnock said. “And a bad lead it is.”
Apartments Downtown management did not respond to four phone calls requesting a comment. The company denied in court the allegations made against it and resisted the lawsuit’s class action status but has revised its lease.
FIGHTING BACK HELPS
Goodwin said Apartment Downtown’s security deposit procedure is frustrating for renters. At the end of his lease, Apartments Downtown sent Goodwin an invoice billing him for his entire deposit.
The invoice cited only cleaning services as justification for the fee. To make matters worse, the invoice also called for additional cleaning charges beyond the deposit amount. Goodwin said his father called Apartments Downtown and threatened legal action. He did not hear from Apartments Downtown again about the added fees.
Warnock said legal action is the best, and sometimes necessary, tool for college students facing unfair treatment from landlords.
Leases for apartments students typically rent usually expire on July 31 each year.
“Small claims courts are set up so you don’t need a lawyer. Tenants are perfectly capable of doing that,” Warnock said.
The threat of legal action proved affective for Eileen Tucker, 23, a fifth-year senior at UNI. Water after a flood damaged a dry wall at Tucker’s first rental property in Cedar Falls in 2012. Her landlord attempted to take the cost of the damage out of her lease but returned most of the deposit after her roommate disputed the charge, she said.
“My dad is a Realtor so I know some of the things that don’t fly,” Tucker said. “I just wanted some form of compensation.”
Tucker had a better experience this past year. She rented through Geisler Properties of Cedar Falls and received more than $200 from a $300 security deposit.
It didn’t come easy.
“We bleached the walls, we bleached the tub, we scrubbed the floor,” Titus said, “We practically scrubbed the place for 48 hours.”
Other college students aren’t willing to put in the same extensive effort.
ISU student Katie Titus is under her first lease through Campustown in Ames and said her experience has been far from spectacular.
Campustown attempted to charge Titus a $60 late fee in June for her semester rent, she said. Titus said she delivered the rent check on time but accidentally filled out the amount 2 cents short of the full rent. The landlord eventually waived the fee but only after Titus made a personal trip to the manager’s office.
Titus said she and her roommates also grew accustomed to trash in the apartment stairwells, broken apartment outlets, and unaccommodating maintenance procedures.
Cleaning the apartment before moving out is not high on her list of concerns.
“We will clean the place but we’re not going to deep clean every inch,” Titus said. “We planned that we probably won’t get our lease back before we moved in.”
Campustown is one of the primary providers of housing near the Ames campus. Its representatives did not respond to a phone call or email asking for comment.
GOOD RENTING EXPERIENCES EXIST
Tenants interviewed in Ames, Iowa City and Cedar Falls this past spring and summer by IowaWatch said landlords rarely visited the property and either briefly or did not discuss the security deposit. They also said contact with their landlords typically was impersonal.
This is not true for all landlords, however.
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Geoff Walker, 21, said he had a positive experience with McLaughlin Rentals in Iowa City in the 2013-14 school year because his landlord, Mike McLaughlin, frequently kept in contact with Walker and his roommates.
“Mike would come by three or four times a semester just to see how the house was doing,” Walker said. “I haven’t seen my new landlord once.”
Walker said McLaughlin’s security deposit procedure differed from other landlords. McLaughlin went through the entire house with Walker and his roommates, marking on a piece of paper any damages or areas in need of cleaning, which he then deducted from the deposit.
“I address things with them in person. I think that’s the way it should be done,” McLaughlin said.
Walker received the majority of his deposit back but thoroughly cleaned his house and shampooed the carpets before leaving. He said he did not know how much he got back and therein lies part of the problem for some renters. None of the renters IowaWatch interviewed kept or had access to their receipts and could not recall the exact amount of money they lost.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR RENTERS
Warnock recommended several actions students can take to ensure a balanced cooperation with landlords.
First is knowing your legal rights as a tenant.
The Iowa Tenants Project website lists information for tenants regarding unfair security deposit practices and steps to legal action.
“I like to call it the people’s law school,” Warnock said.
Another important step is documentation. Tenants should record or photograph the inside and outside of the property in great detail, both before moving in and moving out. This mitigates the landlord’s power to make excessive deductions from the safety deposit, Warnock said.
The final step is to simply avoid damage and clean the property. Iowa law prevents landlords from charging tenants for normal wear and tear, so tenants can keep cleaning within reason.
Even if students take all these steps into account, Warnock said he still wants to see a change to renting culture in Iowa. He said the only way to enforce statutes protecting tenants is for the tenants to take landlords to court.
“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who complain but don’t stand up and take action,” he said. “If tenants are too afraid to take tenants to court, then they are conniving at their own oppression.”
This IowaWatch story was published by The Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register, Iowa State Daily, The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA) and the Corridor Business Journal daily news burst under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.