Balancing the Scales

Chris Warnock and Rockne Cole; Photo by Mara Cole.

Chris Warnock and I are two unconventional lawyers looking to address a conventional problem: the power imbalance between landlords and tenants in Iowa City. Along with Christine Boyer, we have founded the Tenants Project, an organization dedicated to ensuring fair play between landlords and tenants. We seek to change the landlord-tenant dynamic from one of antagonism to cooperation and we intend to accomplish that through self-help litigation assistance, continuing legal education and, if necessary, class-action litigation.

How are landlords exploiting tenants? In return for stratospheric rents, students often get rundown and dilapidated apartments. Yet, local landlords often charge outrageous amounts for cleaning apartments. The difference between these billings and the actual cost of repairs and cleaning has become a significant profit center for local landlords and one that is illegal under Iowa law.

Overcharging for cleaning is just the beginning. One of the most outrageous landlord tactics is charging innocent tenants for vandalism. There is no doubt that some students are responsible for vandalism, or that students can attract vandals, but to charge damage to all the tenants when the landlord has no evidence of their involvement is incredibly

“I don’t have [a] problem with a reasonable profit for landlords, but [I] do not believe that this goal conflicts with fair play for tenants,” said Warnock. “It is simple. Landlords provide housing and tenants pay. Unjustly taking students’ hard earned money through retention of rental deposits should never be part of that equation, but that has apparently been the standard operating procedure for a large number of landlords in Iowa City.”

The Tenants Project seeks to balance the scales of justice by providing free educational seminars and assisting students in litigating their own cases. The Tenants Project will utilize Mr. Warnock’s latest pilot suit, De Stefano v. Apts Downtown Property Management, as a pilot project to develop standardized forms, pleadings and instructions for easy self-representation.

In the De Stefano suit, the Plaintiff alleges a fairly common scenario in the Iowa City area: She claims that her landlord charged her $40 per hour for cleaning and $70 per hour for weeding, without demonstrating that the landlord actually incurred those costs. She also states that her landlord wrongfully charged her automatic cleaning fees. Worse yet, she received a bill for damage to an entry door caused by a burglar. This is exactly the type of fact pattern that the Tenants Project intends to stop through litigation and education.

As practicing attorneys, Mr. Warnock and I see that tenants often have a case against their landlords–that’s the easy part, and the De Stefano case should make it even easier–but tenants, especially students, do not take their landlords to court because it is either too expensive or they do not know that their rights have been violated. Also, the law is sometimes unclear. For example, tenants do not have to pay for ordinary wear and tear, but what is ordinary wear and tear? By litigating these cases, the Tenants Project seeks to develop a body of case law to further define what kind of damage counts. Each success will further encourage tenants to litigate. Each defeat will discourage wrongful retention of rental deposits.

We’re not saying all tenants are perfect, or that landlords don’t very often have a right to reimbursement for damages. But there are many landlords in the area getting away with almost any fees or charges they want because they know that students are unaware of their legal rights and are reluctant to enforce them. Landlords are in a more privileged position in this relationship for a few reasons: They have the tenants’ security deposits in their hands; they can report the tenants to credit agencies or send accounts to collection; and they retain lawyers that are not at all hesitant to enforce their rights by suing tenants. With tenants and landlords on such unequal footing, we view this as an unfair struggle and we seek to fix that through the Tenants Project.

But why start the Tenants Project when The University of Iowa’s Student Legal Services is already providing services to students?

“Student Legal Services serves an important role in addressing this issue; however, there is only one licensed attorney and he can only file so many cases.” says Warnock. “The problem is larger than one lawyer. To use the retailing analogy, they are doing law retail one case at a time. We seek to litigate ‘wholesale’ by filing class actions when necessary, and educating as many students as possible to litigate their own cases. That is the only way this landlord-tenant culture will truly begin to change in a positive direction.”

Additionally, Warnock observed that amongst the private bar in Iowa City, there simply was not much interest in litigating these cases. That is no accident. Too many law schools, including the UI College of Law, design their curriculum to cater to the hiring processes of large law firms, which, aside from the occasional feel-good pro bono, mostly represent the “elite.” It is a system of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. The landlords’ power and wealth allows them to hire the best firms and this gives them confidence, in our view, to aggressively retain rental deposits.

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Saddled by crushing law school debt, law students seek the highest paying jobs. That rarely involves representing students against their landlords. Even if they do obtain a job at legal aid, onerous regulations restrict what kind of cases they can take. All of these problems lead to a dysfunctional system that Mr. Warnock, Christine Boyer and I hope to change through the Tenants Project.

In addition to helping students litigate their own cases, the Tenants Project is developing a series of seminars to educate students about their rights and how to enforce their rights in court.

Ultimately, the Tenants Project seeks to make itself unnecessary by convincing landlords and tenants of their shared goal: a fair rent in exchange for a clean and safe place to live. But until that day comes, the Tenants Project stands ready to ensure a fair deal for landlords and tenants.

For complete information on the organization, plus information on current class actions including pleadings court orders and news stories, visit