July 30, 2015

Documents Reveal Improper Charges Dumped On Iowa City Student Renters

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MovingFeatured_7.29.15

Makayla Tendall/IowaWatch

Iowa City student renters have been nickeled and dimed for several years, losing security deposits and facing fees for automatic cleaning charges and damages to public spaces over which they have no control.

Dara Eifler, who lived on South Johnson Street in 2009, was charged $135 for carpet cleaning and $287.50 in cleaning while being docked $25 for drip pans, $75 for a lock change and $49.50 for missing blinds in the kitchen.

Dumpsters off of Gilbert Street in Iowa City overflow with furniture and trash as students move out on July 28, 2015. Most leases for apartments college students in Iowa City rent expire July 31, creating a massive amount of moving, dumping old furniture and fighting over getting back damage deposits.

Makayla Tendall/IowaWatch

Dumpsters off of Gilbert Street in Iowa City overflow with furniture and trash as students move out on July 28, 2015. Most leases for apartments college students in Iowa City rent expire July 31, creating a massive amount of moving, dumping old furniture and fighting over getting back damage deposits.

Christine Koch, a 2007-08 tenant at 427 S. Johnson St., said her deposit was docked for an automatic carpet cleaning fee when her apartment had only hardwood floors. “I tried to dispute the charge with Apartments Downtown/Apartments Near Campus and was told because I signed the lease I was out of luck,” Koch said in an affidavit.

Koch said she was also charged on two occasions for vandalism in the hallways of her apartment. “No one came forward about doing the vandalism so all apartments on the floor were charged,” she said in her affidavit.

Other tenants were charged for labor and material costs when their apartments were broken into and doors damaged, documents in a Johnson County District Court lawsuit against Iowa City landlord Apartments Downtown Inc.

The documents, reviewed by IowaWatch, supported tenants who said they were assessed improper charges when moving out of their apartments. Three Guys Holding, through which Apartments Downtown is owned, initially were defendants in the lawsuit but dropped from the case.

Tenants in the Johnson County case, in which a judge ruled in their favor and has certified the case as a class action lawsuit, questioned payments for damages to common areas, defined by Apartments Downtown as stairways, hallways or entryways of the building.

“If damages occur in common areas, and landlord and tenant are not able to determine who caused the damage within seven days, then each apartment shall pay a pro-rata share of costs to repair damages,” the company’s former lease said. The lease since has been revised.

Documents in court reveal a variety of actions that the court determined where illegal.

For example, Heidi Fessler, who lived at 201 E. Burlington St. in 2011, was billed $361.33 after a break-in for a new entry door and charged $21 in a separate incident for the replacement of stolen numbers outside on the front door, the documents show.

Elyse DeStefano, a tenant at 516 Bowery St. in 2010, was charged $598.46 for a new entry door and doorjamb after a break-in that year.

Michael Conroy, who started the lawsuit in 2010, lived at 6 S. Johnson St. in September 2009 when that building was acquired by Three Guys Holding and Apartments Downtown. Conroy’s lease was amended so that he was required to meet the same cleaning standards as other Apartments Downtown tenants.

When Conroy moved out in June 2010 he sent Apartments Downtown a letter telling the company to take the last month’s $500 rent out of his $690 security deposit. He was surprised when the company demanded an additional $230.64.

An Apartments Downtown inspector’s report for Conroy’s apartment said crumbs were in the oven, floors in the living room and entry hall were full of dust and crumbs, walls behind the kitchen sink were dirty and the toilet was not clean. On Apartments Downtown’s 1 to10 scale of cleanliness with 10 the highest score, Conroy scored 6 or above on each category, records filed in court show.

In a letter, Apartments Downtown defended the cleaning charges, saying it amounted to $125.

A PODS storage unit off of Gilbert Street in Iowa City on July 28, 2015.

Makayla Tendall/IowaWatch

A PODS storage unit off of Gilbert Street in Iowa City on July 28, 2015.

In addition to the cleaning fee, the company charged $40 for late rent, $40 for a notice to quit and $12.86 for two electricity bills, records show. The company backed down from more than $200 in charges that were not included in Conroy’s lease, but still said he owed more than $27, the records in court show.

“General cleaning is a reasonable charge at the expiration of the lease, as additional cleaning was required to ‘restore the dwelling unit to its condition at the commencement of tenancy’ and to ready the unit for the incoming tenant,” the 2010 letter stated.

Conroy and other former tenants who filed the suit took issue with automatic cleaning fees on the lease, including professional carpet cleaning fees ranging from a minimum of $95 for efficiency apartments up to a maximum of $225 for six or more bedroom apartments. A maximum of $195 was deducted for cleaning hardwood or concrete floors.

Apartments Downtown provided tenants with an extensive cleaning list and tenants had to receive an “A” rating from the inspector to avoid a minimum $150 fee for cleaning by the landlord’s crews. Requirements included cleaning underneath and behind ovens and refrigerators, removing watermarks from sinks and faucets and cleaning air conditioner filters.

Sixth District Court Judge Chad Kepros ruled on July 8, 2015, that automatic cleaning fees and common area charges violated Iowa landlord and tenant laws and illegally shifted a landlord’s responsibility to tenants. Under Iowa law, a landlord may only keep rental deposits for damages caused by a tenant’s deliberate or negligent actions, not general wear and tear.

Additionally, landlords are responsible for repairs and maintaining their properties, including common areas, Kepros ruled.

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