Legal Aid offers help to tenants
IOWA CITY — Jan Rutledge, managing attorney of the Iowa City Regional Office of Iowa Legal Aid said that the office is no stranger to tenants having problems with unresponsive landlords.
Everything from non-working utilities to lack of security to living conditions has been covered through the office. Rutledge said that state law Chapter 562A covers the responsibilities of landlords in dealing with tenants. She said that formerly state code covered landlord responsibilities in greater detail, but the code has been removed. Now only cities with a population of over 15,000 are required to have a code for landlords.
“Smaller cities don’t always have one,” she said.
Iowa Legal Aid provides free legal help to low-income persons or families. Rutledge said that the office does not handle criminal cases and only works on civil cases. The department provides a booklet called ‘A Guide to Landlord Tenant Law in Iowa,’ which is free to low-income families. It is also available at the agency’s Web site at <www.iowalegalaid.org>. Another article on the Web site is titled ‘How Do I get My Landlord to Make Repairs.’
Recently, the City of Washington has been examining its laws governing landlord responsibilities after the Housing Improvement Task Force gave a presentation last July. The Washington City Council is currently examining rental codes and considering requiring rental property inspections in the city. During a recent meeting, a tenant who lives in Washington stated that his rental apartment does not have heat.
According to state code, Chapter 562A.15 requires a landlord to maintain a fit premises. Section D requires the landlord to “Maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating,air-conditioning, and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord.”
Rutledge discussed some of the options available to tenants, which are included in the handbook. One option she discussed was under some conditions the tenant could order the repair and deduct the cost from their rent. She said there are limitations on this and the tenant should get information before proceeding.
“This depends on whether the cost to correct the problem is less than a months rent, or if the problem is even correctible,” she said. “Sometimes there are houses that are so run down that it is cost-prohibitive to repair them.”
The tenant can also in some cases take the option of terminating the rental agreement if the landlord does not make the needed repairs. Again, the code requires the tenant contact the landlord to provide them with the information.
She also said in the case of low-income tenants, the tenant doesn’t always have the money to make the repairs themselves. She said the tenant can ask the city for an inspection of the property for safety code violations.
Another problem addressed in the law is any type of retaliation from a landlord — such as eviction or increased rent — as a result of a tenant’s complaint.
She said anyone wishing to approach legal aid with a problem could contact the office by phone or submit an online application. Rutledge said that the applicant would be asked about income and assets to determine if they qualify for assistance. Even people who don’t qualify can get legal information off the agency’s Web site. If they do, an attorney will speak to them and give advice on how to solve an issue. She said many times this is all that is needed. In some cases, a member of Iowa Legal Aid can go to court for a client.
For more information, contact Iowa Legal Aid at (319) 351-6570 or 1-800-272-0008.