Iowa City passes rent abatement ordinance

Iowa Code allows rent abatement to take place in cities the size of Iowa City.

Iowa City council members passed a new ordinance giving the city the power to let tenants stop paying rent until their landlord fixes any major problems that violate housing code.

This is the third and final time the rent abatement ordinance was brought to the council and passed, meaning it is officially adopted.

The purpose of the ordinance is to hold landlords accountable for code violations while offering more protection for tenants.

"They're not responsible for the rent from the time the city provides a notice [to the tenant and landlord], until the problem is resolved, or an inspector goes out there to check," said Iowa City Neighborhood Services Coordinator Tracy Hightshoe.

Landlord Tara Harris said she would never put her tenants in a house she would not live in herself. She said this new ordinance is unnecessary because landlords typically maintain their rental units per city code.

"It kind of upset me,” she said.

The city said this ordinance came to be, in part, because of the poor conditions residents faced at an apartment complex called Rose Oaks. The location where the complex once stood is now owned by new management.

The city hopes this ordinance will enforce the rules for those who may not follow code again.

"We've not revoked a rental permit for years, but if a situation comes to the point where we need it, if there's a life and safety health gives more flexibility to the tenant," said Hightshoe.

Currently, if the city found a rental unit to violate city code, and revoked the landlord’s rental permit, a tenant would be forced to vacate their apartment. Instead, this ordinance gives the tenant more time, and not risk being evicted if he or she does not pay rent.

However, Harris said the city should not interfere with tenant/landlord relationships.

"I think that there are going to be some tenants that'll use that to their advantage,” she said. “I think that's giving the tenant something in their arsenal to say, 'hey we can start nit-picking at every little thing'."

Yet, city staff only plan to use the ordinance on major safety and health hazards.

"We're talking…the apartment [is] flooded, has no water, [or] has no heat in the winter," said Hightshoe.

Hightshoe said rent abatement does not mean a tenant can simply choose not to pay rent, because he or she can still face eviction.

"Unless you're getting a notice from us, you have to pay your rent,” she said.

Hightshoe said the tenant should be speaking to the landlord first to get any major issues in their rental property fixed. If the matter is not handled, the tenant is encouraged to speak with city staff. That is when rent abatement may be applied.

Iowa Code allows rent abatement to take place in cities the size of Iowa City.

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