Rules, regulations for landlords and rental properties differ around southeast Iowa

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Rental properties in the City of Mt. Pleasant are not inspected and landlords do not need to register with the city. Instead any code violations are handled within the planning and zoning administrations office.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Rental properties in the City of Mt. Pleasant are not inspected and landlords do not need to register with the city. Instead any code violations are handled within the planning and zoning administrations office.

Rental homes are a highly sought after option for many. However, not every city has a program to regulate the properties and those that do differ greatly.

Scott Vaughan, Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Fairfield, said he was unsure how many landlords were registered within the city but estimated there was anywhere between 13-1,400 rental properties within the limits.

“I’d say our town is probably on the higher end due to the college being there,” he said, crediting the Maharishi International University and it’s student body for the increased need.

Vaughan said in order to be a landlord in Fairfield, the property must be registered with the city. Upon registration it is entered into a schedule for inspection. The property must be inspected before it is ready for rent and after that every four years. If a deficiency is found within the rental unit, the landlord is given 30 days to address the violation and bring it back up to code.

Steve Donnolly, Building and Zoning Administrator for the City of Washington, said he performs rental inspections every three years. For new properties, they are inspected before they can be rented out and any deficiencies found must be addressed within 30-60 days. He said these code violations can range from requiring a handrail on steps to something more serious like a leaky toilet.

Both inspectors said the landlord is given a notice two to three weeks before the inspection date to let them know about the appointment. The landlord is then responsible for giving the tenant a 24 hour notice before an inspector can enter the property. Because it would be too time consuming to go back and reinspect the property to ensure the inefficiency was taken care of, the landlord is required to take a picture of the remedy and email it in to the officer.

Jack Swarm, Building and Zoning Administrator for the City of Mt. Pleasant said there is no program in effect for regulating rentals in his city. He said they are treated the same as any other owned property, therefor there is no application or inspection process.

“The city council chooses not to regulate rental properties any different from other properties. In Iowa, cities of 20,000 or more are mandated to do so under Iowa code, but if you’re under 20,000 you are not,” he said.

However, every property within city limits must meet the maintenance code as established by the city. The code is enforced based on a complaint basis, as violations are seen from the street or otherwise noticed.

He said an example of a violation noticed from the street would be a leaky roof or cracked foundation. Otherwise notices could range from a family member making a complaint to a member of lawn enforcement or EMS who has been in the home and noticed the issue and brought it to his attention. If the code violations are found to be in violation, the property owner would need to fix the problem for the safety of the tenant.

“Landlords are responsible to provide a house that meets code for their occupants,” he said.

Donnolly said the rental inspection program in Washington is fairly new, having just been adopted in May 2017. He said there were a number of homes that appeared dilapidated and properties identified as nuisance properties were commonly coming back as being rentals. In 2012 the city did a comprehensive plan to map out what improvements it wanted to make in the coming years.

One of those identified was improving neighborhoods and keep up the housing stock. To improve the neighborhoods and provide safety for renters, the council decided to establish rental inspections. He said it was a big point of contention among local landlords but after three years was finally passed. Donnolly estimated 30-35 percent of the town’s housing stock is comprised of rentals, or between 900 and 950 properties.

Donnolly and Vaughan both perform the inspections themselves and look for a variety of things to be in order such as at properties having at least one smoke detector on every level or unit, no broken windows and no exposed wires. Vaughan said the HVAC and furnace systems in homes also need to be inspected by a certified technician and the landlord is expected to turn in a copy of that report to his office.

The outside of the home is also the landlord’s responsibility and must align with city code he said. The grass must not grow taller than 10 inches and weeds need to be taken care of as well.

He said a letter is sent out to every property owner, regardless if they rent or own a home, at the beginning of the mowing season to remind them. This is the only warning they get and if the yard is not properly taken care of, the city will mow it at a charge of $195 to the property owner, not the tenant.

Donnelly said the same sentiment applies in Washington and if the yard is not taken care of both the tenant and landlord will receive a notice. If the city has to take care of the yard, the bill will go directly to the landlord.

In regard to expectations of tenants, Vaughan said that is an agreement between tenant and landlord. Any civil issues between the two will be handled by the police department.

This has become a hot-button issue in Washington as a disorderly house ordinance has been frequently discussed at city council meetings. The proposed ordinance would hold property owners accountable for any home that was found to be disorderly. This would apply to both rental and owner-occupied homes.

According to the proposed ordinance, no one would be permitted to, “knowingly keep, maintain, operate or be concerned with keeping, maintaining or operating within the city a disorderly house.” This caused a stir with many landlords who have attended meetings to express to the council they do not feel they should be held responsible for the actions of their tenants because they cannot control them. The ordinance has moved to a third reading and could potentially be passed at the next meeting.

Swarm agreed with Vaughan and said any civil issues would be dealt with by the police department and would be enforced just as it would be in any other location.

“To me it would be no different from if people were causing a ruckus at a gas station. The police are going to come and hold those people responsible. If they’re causing a ruckus at a house, they’re going to come and hold those people responsible,” he said. Swarm said he did not foresee the council taking action on regulation in the future because the model they have now works well. “The reason I’m here is to help keep occupants safe and to promote safety and welfare. To that degree I don’t see any real need to regulate rental properties.”