Every summer, lease gaps leave Iowa City renters scrambling for housing and storage

Amir Prellberg/Little Village

Paul Holdefer faced a worrying prospect. The University of Iowa graduate research assistant’s lease was set to expire July 25, a week before his new one began. He tried to negotiate a longer stay in his original apartment, “just to not be unhoused with all my stuff and my partner,” he said, “even offering to prorate rent above what the going rate was.” Weeks later his property managers emailed him back with a resounding no, claiming the carpet cleaning crew needed a full week to get into the apartment and clean, which stretched credulity. Days before he was kicked to the curb, his partner’s coworker said they could stay in his house while he was on vacation.

“We were able to avoid catastrophe, but the whole process of cramming everything into his garage, living in his home, and moving everything again a week later was an enormous pain caused simply due to a property management company’s lack of flexibility and current tenants being caught in the same trap as the rest of us Iowa City area renters,” Holdefer told Little Village in an email.

Every year during some of the hottest days of summer, hundreds of local renters find themselves searching for a place to stay or store their things in the days between the end of one lease and the start of another, usually the last week in July and/or first week of August. During the stretch without a set residence, renters scramble and often rely on help from friends, family, even strangers.

In a survey of 300 students conducted by the University of Iowa’s Undergraduate Student Government (UISG), 59 percent reported being effected by lease gaps. Nine out of 10 said they do not have adequate resources to deal with temporary homelessness, and 85 percent rated their stress level while dealing with lease gaps as 4 or 5 out of 5.

“In the past some people have had to live out of their cars, especially if they have pets [and] they don’t have anywhere to put them, and a lot of people use their friends who are already in Iowa City, or if they have family here,” said Ellie Miglin, a city liaison with UISG.

“Even though I think it’s great that the Iowa City community is so willing to take in people, at the same time, it should be [the university’s] responsibility and the city’s responsibility.”

This year, UISG partnered with the Iowa House Hotel, the Iowa Memorial Union, Student Legal Services, University Housing & Dining, and Student Care and Assistance to provide 30 rooms at the Iowa House Hotel for $30 a night from July 28 to Aug. 3 for renters in between leases. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students will have access to typical hotel amenities such as wifi, TV and a free continental breakfast.

Amber McNeal, general manager at Iowa House Hotel, said applications opened on June 10 and the reservations filled within a week.

Amir Prellberg/Little Village

“I believe [the lease gap has] a huge impact on campus, mostly for students arriving internationally that didn’t have a secured lease already and show up and the apartments aren’t ready,” she said.

Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter said a city measure to address the lease gap period hasn’t come before the Iowa City Council, but that the city should look into solutions, though there would be hurdles in trying to manage private property owners. She said she’s read about people living in conditions they shouldn’t in order to manage the gap.

“It’s something that I’m concerned about, and I would like to figure out a way that people, students, families, renters of all ages don’t have to encounter that kind of weird situation,” she said. “I think I also read something that there was somebody who actually stayed in their storage unit because they had to rent a storage unit just to hold their stuff for a little bit. So clearly, there’s a lot going on.”

As a college town, Alter said Iowa City has a high percentage of rental properties.

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“I don’t think that the city can mandate that leases are altered or changed because we’re not the owners of those properties,” Alter said. “But I would very much like to talk to people who are closer to it and work with affordable housing and maybe there’s a partnership that could be done with [the University of] Iowa.”

Iowa City Councilmember Pauline Taylor said another challenge is that the state government has prevented the city from enacting measures related to renting and landlords in the past.

Taylor said she’s heard from students for whom the gap has been a problem, but that she hopes to learn more about it from residents.

“If there are other renters out there that this has been an issue for, we’d love to hear from them,” she said. “We need to hear from them.”

Amir Prellberg/Little Village

A call for lease gap stories posted to Little Village’s social media accounts yielded dozens of responses, ranging from annoyance to desperation. Some have been managing lease gaps every summer for years.

“I’ve had to rent a storage unit for three months to ensure a unit was available for that one week,” wrote Kiran Patel.

“Over the years I was able to store my stuff for a few days in friends’ garages, a friend of a friend’s garage once, and under a tarp in a friend’s carport once,” commented Nick LaFayette.

Stan Laverman, the senior housing inspector for the City of Iowa City, oversees the inspection of nearly 20,000 rental units during the lease gap period. His primary duty is to find housing code issues.

“We inspect every month out of the year so, you know, it’s not that we’re trying to conduct all those inspections or landlords have all those inspections due Aug. 1 when people move in,” Laverman said. “We have systematic inspections every working day of the year, so I think there’s other ways to do it. There’s ways that leases could be staggered, but that’s a contract issue.”

Kyle Vogel, the president and managing broker at Keystone Property Management, one of the area’s largest rental companies, said most of their leases begin on Aug. 1 and end July 28 or 29. When he began at the company in 2000, the leases went until July 31, but over the years companies needed more time to turn over units.

“There was no way to turn over and property maintenance and clean, you know, 150 turnovers in a 24-hour period,” Vogel said. “So most of ours are at that 48-to-72-hour period, which allows us to get cleaners and carpet cleaners and hopefully perform necessary maintenance or at least get in and do our inspections to find out what needs to be done.”

Vogel said it’s a unique issue in college towns.

“How do you minimize that gap? How do you change it?” he said. “And I don’t know that it’s changeable, you know, as long as the student market dictates the overall rental market in Iowa City.”

Vogel says Keystone tries to alert renters ahead of re-leasing to be aware and plan for the gap. Over the years he’s seen an increase in storage units available to rent in Iowa City, but some renters can’t find a truck to haul their stuff since so many locals find themselves moving at the same time.

Amir Prellberg/Little Village

Sometimes, a renter will be able to stay in their unit longer if the next renter can’t move in until later in August.

“It’s always worth reaching out to your landlord and just see if there is that possibility,” he said. “I mean, if I can work that out, that’s great because that means I don’t have to find a cleaner, or a painter or maintenance vendor for that 48-hour period.”

Alex Kormya, a lawyer with Iowa Legal Aid, said he experienced lease gaps as a tenant in another college town similar in size to Iowa City: Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. Kormya was a renter there for 10 years, both during and after his time as an undergrad.

“Because leases are tuned to the academic year, everybody’s moving at the same time for a large portion of the population, and I found even if you’re out of school, like, you end up still locked into that cycle because that’s how the whole town is running,” Kormya said.

The lease gap is sometimes referred to as “homeless week” among renters. It’s the term UISG used in their survey, but Miglin, the city liaison, said it’s misleading, and that “lease gap period” is a more accurate and respectful way to describe the phenomenon.

At Iowa Legal Aid, a statewide nonprofit law firm, Kormya works with vulnerable populations for free on civil legal issues. He said renters could experience effects of transient houselessness within the gap. For many of his clients facing evictions, these situations are long lasting.

“Imagine what the lease gap would feel like, if there was no specific end to it,” he said. “… You have this little taste of that instability, except for you’ve got a prospect, you know, it’s going to be over at some point, and for a lot of our clients there’s no end.”

Kormya’s advice to renters is to not assume protocol will be based on common sense, but to actually check the rules. As a renter himself, he said he’s experienced that feeling of powerlessness in situations with landlords.

“I ended up dealing with a lot of things I shouldn’t have because I didn’t know my rights.”

Lease Gap Horror Stories

Cottonbro/Pexels, edited

This has happened to me three or four times. I’ve had to rent a storage unit for three months to ensure a unit was available for that one week. Left boxes with various friends and family. Rented a garage from my new landlord. Boarded my cats at the vet and slept on my mom’s floor. Stayed in a hotel for a week. Stayed with friends. —Kiran Patel

Currently experiencing this. We have been living at the Sycamore Apartments for 11 years; they couldn’t just give us three more days. —Will Hancock

One year we rented a truck from Davenport and had to move all our stuff into storage in Solon. Then rent another truck from Mt. Vernon to get all the stuff out of storage. Not cheap. —Adrianne Behning

I rented a truck and kept it locked up for a couple days. When I moved to Davenport, the landlord didn’t even charge me to move in a couple days early! Night and day as far as rent and damages treatment. IC landlords (and rents) are extreme. —B. Adam Burke

I never realized this was unique to Iowa City until I moved away. In Grenada, most of our landlords have a storage space on their property to allow departing/arriving tenants to store their stuff up to three months (like summer break) for free. It makes everything so much easier and makes us more likely to recommend renting from them to future students! —Kelli Marie Ebensberger

I know we had to hang out in a U-Haul moving truck with our cat for several hours during one of our moves, because we were able to get an early move-in but not until the evening that we had to be out of our previous place in the morning. Didn’t love the cat in a hot truck at the beginning of August, but what are you going to do? We were lucky that they got us in early and we didn’t need the rental truck for multiple days. —Elinor Levin

Over the years I was able to store my stuff for a few days in friends’ garages, a friend of a friend’s garage once, and under a tarp in a friend’s carport once. Luckily always had a friend not moving where I could stay a day or two. Having good friends definitely helped but it was always frustrating dealing with those gaps between leases. —Nick LaFayette

Literally begging for all the help available. The leasing company we are leaving have made it tremendously clear the cost of leaving. Every tiny infraction left will cost. We have lived in this space more than a decade and they will most likely charge us to change the carpet, even though they say they change the carpet anytime someone leaves. On top of leaving them with an empty apartment they almost ask for blood for leaving their company. Iowa City is full of slumlords looking to ruin people because it is a college town. Terrible people forcing terrible situations. —Erica Hancock

I lived on [a friend’s] couch in North Liberty [for a week] and we binged Orange is the New Black every night! And I was only moving into another unit in the same complex. —Monique Antoinette Galpin

Literally [stayed] in a frat house. I cleaned for them in order to have a place to stay. —Lindsey Moon

Has happened to me luckily my parents lived in town too so I would store my stuff in their garage and stay at their house. —Josh Gibson

Moved everything into a storage facility, bought a tent and camped out at the Coralville Res for a few nights. Great memories! —Kristi McCall

Natalie Dunlap is a Little Village intern, freelancer and politics editor for the Daily Iowan. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 308.