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Judge rules in favor of Iowa City Tenants' Project

Friday March 21, 2014,
Iowa City Press Citizen

The Iowa City Tenants’ Project, a group that has brought legal action against local landlords on behalf of student renters, scored another victory this week in court.

A Johnson County District Court judge issued a ruling Tuesday against landlord Tracy Barkalow and his property ownership and management companies, finding that several provisions in Barkalow’s leases were illegal, and granting the tenants’ group class-action certification for future legal action.

Judge Douglas Russell, in a 13-page decision following a January hearing, ruled that several provisions in Barkalow’s lease — including one that imposed an automatic fee for carpet cleaning when a tenant moved out — were illegal.

Plaintiffs in the case were Brooke Staley, Tyler Lammer, Shelby Burdette, Dylan Thiemann, Dakota Thomas and Bradley Pollpeter, who were all student renters, said Christopher Warnock, the lawyer with the Iowa City Tenants’ Project who represented them.

Barkalow and his affiliated businesses, TSB and Big Ten Property Management, were defendants. Barkalow on Thursday said he had no comment on the ruling.

The plaintiffs also challenged provisions in the lease that included fees, fines, penalties and charges that go beyond actual, proven damages. Russell ruled that such fees were illegal, as were provisions that removed the landlord’s liability in a number of areas, including for injuries and loss of property related to theft, fire or other circumstances.

“This is probably going to go up on appeal, and if the Court of Appeals affirms it, or the Supreme Court, it’s a revolution in landlord-tenant law,” Warnock said. “It will make a huge difference not only in Iowa City, but all around the state.”

Barkalow is one of several local landlords the Iowa City Tenants’ Project has challenged in court in recent years. The group is also seeking class-action certification against the city’s largest off-campus student housing provider, Apartments Downtown, and a smaller area landlord called Houser Enterprises.

Warnock said his group is not after a big payout from landlords, but to protect renters from losing security deposits because of minor issues and being subject to undue fees and fines.

“Really what we’re interested in doing is cleaning up the leases,” Warnock said. “We don’t need to make big fees, we don’t have a contingency arrangement, and we’re not that interested in huge damages — if we can get the landlords to clean up their leases.”

Warnock says this week’s ruling also paves the way for a class-action case against Apartments Downtown because the company’s lease is identical to the one Barkalow uses. That means this ruling could potentially affect thousands of renters in Iowa City who have signed leases with Apartments Downtown, Warnock said.

For further information go to the Iowa Tenants' Project Contact Page