Citizen Wausau

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Landlord Agents

by on October 22nd, 2009

On Monday evening during Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting, there was a public hearing on some changes to Wausau’s housing code ordinances. The three changes were:

  1. Establishing a re-inspection fee if building inspectors have to constantly re-inspect a property for the same uncorrected violation.
  2. Making it a code violation to have a non-operational vehicle (which includes vehicles without proper registration) on a property unless it is in a garage.
  3. Requiring property owners who don’t live in Marathon County to have a registered agent for service of process within Marathon County.

These are just the first rounds of recommended changes coming to the City from a Task Force that was created at the request of the Mayor some time back. The Task Force was to “be composed of staff and elected alderpersons to study the issues and provide recommendations for a Code Enforcement Program that would ensure decent and safe housing for all City of Wausau residents.” – This statement, in quotes, comes from the Task Force recommendation sheet that was provided to the Committee at Monday’s meeting.

This Task Force consisted of Deb Hadley, Matt Kaiser, Lisa Rasmussen, Ann Werth, Roger Sydow and Tammy Stratz. Their first meeting was held on February 17th, 2009, and their last meeting was on June 23rd. In gathering information for their recommendations, they interviewed Anne Jacobson (city attorney), Cliff Ambriz (property inspector), Mark Sauer (municipal judge), Officer Max LaPorte (police dept) and Mindy Brandenburg (community development specialist).

NOTE: I did request the agendas and minutes from these meetings, but I was told that the City of Wausau feels that an ad hoc committee such as this one does not fall under the open meeting laws so no agendas were posted or “official” minutes taken.

The three proposed ordinance changes that went to public hearing on Monday were all recommendations of this Task Force. The first recommendation of the Task Force is to hire an additional property inspector. Understanding this is not in the budget, a further recommendation is to “work towards a program that would license all rental units which will pay for the additional inspector through these fees.”

I personally find it interesting that this committee has determined that licensing rental properties and using the fees to hire another building inspector will accomplish the goal of improving the quality of housing in Wausau. I also find it personally interesting that the Task Force came to this conclusion even though none of the interviews were done with rental housing providers. (And no, playing phone tag with me for two days doesn’t count.) As a matter of fact, in the meeting minutes from the September 21st, 2009, Public Health and Safety Committee minutes, when “Abitz questioned if this had been brought forward to any of the rental associations, Rasmussen indicated there were some public hearings scheduled and meetings with some of the neighborhood groups.”

In other words… NO! There was one public hearing scheduled (the one we had on Monday) and they want to get this to the Council and approved in November so that notices of the ordinance change requiring the agent be included with the tax bills. And, although I admire the work done by many of the neighborhood groups, I have yet to hear how any of those groups make an effort to include rental property owners.

In a conversation I had with Rob Mentzer of the Wausau Daily Herald, I explained that I understand why the City wants to create this requirement for an agent in county. It makes their job of serving notices easier. But it also creates additional expense. Who is going to be willing to be a registered agent to be served process (and possibly find their name on CCAP just because they are an agent)? What will they charge? How will adding an additional cost, which will most likely just be passed on to the tenants as rent, help make housing better? It may have the opposite effect. Houses and rental properties that are in distress and are being sold may now have a smaller pool of buyers, as out-of-county purchasers may not want to deal with this whole “registered agent” thing.

If the city has to serve process on an out-of-county owner, it may cost more. But in the eventual judgment, those costs get added on and can get recouped. I understand that out-of-state property owners adds another level of difficulty, but when the owner resides out of state, there is a state law (WI SS 704.22) that requires out-of-state residential rental owners to have a designated agent in-state, and that information should be on file with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.

Reasons given by the Inspections Department for wanting agents include how difficult it is to determine who owns the property. However, I have no problem getting owner information through a quick phone call to the Marathon County Treasurer’s office. Another reason for wanting a designated agent, is because often the owner is a corporation or LLC and you don’t know who to serve. However, I have no problem getting this information on the Department of Financial Institution website, as registered agents for corporate entities are maintained by that department and anyone can go on the website and get this information.

I hear talk that we need to do something about the slum-lords in this town – and I will agree. I spend a great deal of money to make sure that my housing units meet all applicable codes, and I want everyone to play by the same rules that I do. However, and the Inspections Department will agree with me, the slumlords are the minority. The vast majority of rental property owners comply with codes and provide safe housing.

Also, in my experience, there are two kinds of slumlords. There are those that are in it for the money and simply don’t care; and there are those who didn’t realize what they were getting into and simply can’t afford to care.

That first group we can take care of by just aggressively enforcing the ordinances that we currently have.

That second group might be able to be saved with education, guidance, and a culture of understanding, working together. and helping. Having the Task Force make recommendations without soliciting the input of rental housing owners flies in the face of a culture of working together, and creating an additional expense of having to find an in-county agent only takes away more money that the landlord could otherwise use for the needed repairs.

Two of the three recommendations, in my opinion, will help the goal of cleaning up Wausau properties. However, in regards to the agent thing, I have yet to understand how this will actually help. It will only create additional expenses for the good landlords – for the slumlords, this is just another code that they will chose to ignore.

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