Iowa City Council to vote on new tenants’ rights ordinance

For rent sign — photo courtesy

UPDATE: The Iowa City Council unanimously approved the ordinance at its Oct. 3 meeting.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Iowa City Council is expected to approve a new city ordinance that would allow tenants to withhold rent in certain cases where a landlord’s failure to repair problems “pose[s] a substantial risk to the health or safety of the tenant.” Known as “rent abatement,” state law allows municipalities to order such abatements, but it is not currently part of the Iowa City Municipal Code.

“It’s not something that we would use that often, but it would give tenants more options,” said Tracy Hightshoe, interim director of the Department of Neighborhood and Development Services (NDS).

Currently, the city can revoke a landlord’s rental permit in cases of serious health or safety violations, according to Hightshoe. But that forces tenants to vacate a property. If rent abatement is approved, a city inspector could issue a notice to the landlord that unless the problem is fixed within five days, the tenant will not be legally responsible to pay rent from the date the notice is issued until the city confirms the problem is fixed.

NDS would be the city agency with the authority to issue rent abatement orders, under the ordinance the council will be voting on. A tenant would have to wait for the department to act before starting to withhold rent.

“We don’t want people deciding to withhold rent on their own, because that might … lead to them being evicted or being held civilly liable for failing to pay,” Hightshoe said. “We want them to tell the landlord about the problem first. But if the landlord is not going to make the repair, or says it won’t be made quickly, then we want the tenant contacting us about the complaint.”

Hightshoe emphasized that a rent abatement order would only be issued in the cases where there is a serious risk to health and safety. For advice on how tenants can resolve other maintenance issues with a landlord, she recommended consulting a guide published by Iowa Legal Aid, “How Do I Get My Landlord to Make Repairs?”.

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