An Update on Wausau Housing Task force
by John H. Fischer on August 1st, 2011
In what seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Mayor Tipple started a Housing Task Force to come up with ways to better address the blight that was gaining ground in some of the City’s more mature neighborhoods. Although Wausau’s downtown is something that similar cities can only marvel at, to get to that downtown, you have to go through a moat of substandard housing, blighted neighborhoods, and high crime areas.
The original task force was made up of a few members of the City Council together with a few of the City’s department heads. They spent nearly a year interviewing other City employees and department heads, and came up with a list of recommendations. These recommendations including things that ranged from charging fees when having to constantly re-inspect a property for the same problem to coming up with ways to better collect fines assessed, to creating a registration and licensing program for Wausau’s rental housing owners.
It is with that registration and licensing proposal that I became aware of the Housing Task Force, its history, its mission, and most importantly it recommendations. A serious of three public hearings were held to discuss registration and licensing. Through this hearing process, it became very clear to them that a piece was left out, specifically those affected such as the landlords, tenants, and homeowners. After these hearings, the Task Force decided it was back to the drawing board. Some of the city council members on the task force didn’t make it through the election cycle. They were replaced with stake holders, specifically a landlord, a tenant, and a homeowner.
One of the first things this new and improved Housing Task Force accomplished was to come up with a detailed definition of “Blight”. We broke it down into what we thought it were its core components. Blight means different things to different people. So, we defined the various elements that make up blight. The theory being that if we, as a Task Force, come up with different ways to address these smaller pieces of the pie, by default we will attack the pie itself. The good ol’ divide and conquer strategy when it comes to elements of blight.
Another thing the Task Force looked at was landlord and tenant responsibilities. Although a landlord is ultimately in control of their property, tenants have many rights under our laws and the truly only effective tool a landlord has to address problems if push comes to shove is eviction. An incident made the news a while back about a landlord facing significant fines from the City of Wausau because of a tenant’s couch on porch. The couch is the tenant’s property, so the landlord couldn’t legally just make it go away. The landlord could try to evict the tenant for not doing something about the couch, but would a court back them up and make someone homeless over an issue like that?
The Task Force came up with a list of things, especially as they relate to single family and duplex rentals, of when the City should cite and fine the landlord versus when they should be addressing this problem with the tenant. The Task Force’s proposal is still in the City’s legal department being word-smithed, but just the discussion of this item has turned into action. When the City Inspections Department notifies a property owner about a problem, if it is something that might actually be a tenant problem (the couch on the porch is a great example), with the letter to the landlord, the City asks the landlord for information on the tenant so that they can try to gain compliance from the tenant directly.
This has been working. Compliance often comes much quicker. Tenants will often ignore requests of landlords knowing a court is probably not going to grant an eviction over items such as these, but getting an official letter from the City, with the very real threats of fines and citations will get the tenant’s attention.
We have discussed making some minor modifications to Wausau’s landlord registration program, which would make it more practical and reasonable to comply with. The discussion of licensing is also still on the table. However, more of a focus has been using it as punishment to problem property owners, and not put it on everyone. One of the biggest reasons the City has been pushing for licensing is it would give the City a tool to inspect the inside of a rental housing unit to ensure that it is code compliant. It turns out that existing city codes (that have been around since the 1970’s) already give the City all the authority it needs to inspect the interior (as well as the exterior) of Wausau’s housing (owner occupied as well as rental housing).
One idea that has been thrown around at the last few Task Force meetings is that of rent abatement. The basic premise is that one way to gain compliance from landlords to have them fix sub-standard housing is to hit them where it hurts, their wallet. If some aspect of a housing unit violated City codes, but did not get to the point where the property was unfit to live in, tenants would be able to reduce the rent they pay to the landlord until they got the problem fixed.
Before landlords all over Wausau (and the state for that matter) send a lynch mob after me for thinking that this is an idea that has merit, I need to point out that this is not anything new. As a matter of fact, Wisconsin law (WI SS 704.07 (4)) already allows for tenants to partially abate the rent for problems with rental properties.
However, that state law is very vague. How much rent should be abated? What percentage of use of the apartment, duplex or home was diminished? What the Task Force is proposing is to take some of the ambiguity out of this existing law. It would establish various common issues and assign them either a flat dollar amount, or a percentage of rent. So, if problem A, exists, the tenant can reduce the amount of rent they pay by X%. On the other hand, if problem B, exists, the tenant can knock off Y% of the rent.
Of course, as with anything, the devil is in the details. Existing state law does not allow the tenant to reduce the amount of rent they pay when they actually were the cause of the problem. Also, existing law allows for rent abatement to start as soon as they have given the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem. Wausau’s proposal would establish due process. The problem would have to be verified by the inspections department, not fixed in the timeline given by them, the inspections dept. would notify the tenant they are eligible for abatement. There would be a hearing, probably before Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee, and only after they rendered a decision, would the abatement start.
The tenant representative on the Task Force, Judicare attorney Karen Bauer, is very familiar with Madison’s version of this rent abatement program. That will probably be used as the frame work. To ensure it is fair and reasonable, I (as the landlord representative on the committee) have been tasked with helping her. If we can come up with an abatement proposal that both she and I feel is fair and reasonable, interests of tenants, landlords and the rest of the City of Wausau will be protected.
The Rent Abatement proposal has been determined as a tool that the Task Force needs to address sooner rather than later. Look for future blog entries on how this is progressing.