Fourth Amendment Neglect in the Hawkeye State

Does the Fourth Amendment apply to renters? The city council of Waterloo, Iowa, doesn’t think so. An expanded rental inspection program, going into effect next January, ignores the Constitution’s guarantee against searches without probable cause by requiring landlords open their tenants’ doors to Waterloo’s Housing Authority. Under the city’s warrantless rental inspection regime, criminals enjoy more constitutional rights than law-abiding citizens who rent their apartments.

For more about how the Constitution protects the rights of tenants, check out IJ’s Primer on Warrantless Rental Inspections

Instead of expanding its rental inspection program, Waterloo council members should have considered alternatives to mandatory rental inspections. First, tenants could submit requests to the city for inspection if they feel unsafe in their property. Second, inspections should only be conducted when the apartment is vacant, which would limit the intrusion into a tenant’s private life. And third, instead of attempting to catch neglectful landlords, cities should encourage them to maintain their properties by incentivizing proper management with awards like seals of approval and letter grading, increasing the marketability of their properties.

With these viable, less intrusive options available to city governments, one questions why they continue to ignore the property rights of tenants. Waterloo’s expanded program might shed some light on the subject. Landlords currently pay $25 per unit every five years, but will soon have to pay these fees every year, resulting in a fivefold increase in inspection fees. The new ordinance will also increase the inspection frequency from every five years to every three. So while landlords will pay five times more for inspection, their properties will only be inspected an additional four times every thirty years.

In Iowa’s northern neighbor, IJ is currently litigating two cases concerning rental properties in the cities of Red Wing and Winona, Minn. City officials in Red Wing are enforcing a rental property inspection law that requires landlords and tenants to open their doors to inspections before a landlord can receive a license to rent the property. Meanwhile in Winona, the city is imposing a ban on the number of homes that can be rented out on any given block: the government grants permission to only 30 percent of the homeowners living on each block. Whether someone gets a license is luck of the draw.

Have you or someone you know had your rights violated by overbearing rental inspection laws? Please let us know here.

— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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