Feb 09

I previously wrote about problems with Milwaukee’s DNS computer system.  They now have their new system online.

I spoke to a couple of people that have attended a recent DNS presentation on the new property information system.

At this presentation, the attendees were told that DNS was prevented from collecting contact information, such as phone numbers, through property recording due to ACT 176.  This is not accurate but is just more “Fake News”  that our industry has been subjected to so much lately.
 
ACT 176 explicitly permits the collection of the contact information for the authorized contact person for the property. This exclusion was supported by the Apartment Association as most owners find value in having people be able to contact them or the people they have managing their properties so that they may address small problems before they become big problems. We also find it useful to be able to contact other owners during screening.
 
Here is the law as enacted by ACT 176:
 
66.0104 (2) (e) No city, village, town, or county may enact an ordinance that does any of the following:

1. Requires that a rental property or rental unit be inspected except upon a complaint by any person, as part of a program of regularly scheduled inspections conducted in compliance with s. 66.0119, as applicable, or as required under state or federal law
.
2. Charges a fee for conducting an inspection of a residential rental property unless all of the following are satisfied:
a. The amount of the fee is uniform for residential rental inspections.
b. The fee is charged at the time that the inspection is actually performed.

3. Charges a fee for a subsequent reinspection of a residential rental property that is more than twice the fee charged for an initial reinspection.

4. Except as provided in this subdivision, requires that a rental property or rental unit be certified, registered, or licensed. A city, village, town, or county may require that a rental unit be registered if the registration consists only of providing the name of the owner and an authorized contact person and an address and telephone number at which the contact person may be contacted.
Jan 07

Recently the Milwaukee Journal ran a series “Landlord Games” that inaccurately portrayed LLCs as being used simply to avoiding paying property taxes and fines.  The result is the Milwaukee Common Council is creating a committee to study LLCs and rental housing. Text of proposal. The rental industry is again, noticeably absent from those invited to the table.

View as formatted pdf with footnotes

Let’s agree that all property owners pay a cost when someone fails to pay their taxes or their property is foreclosed and abandoned.

The Apartment Association does not support bad actors. None of those owners featured in the Journal article are members of the Association.

Rather we see the importance of the city, and private investors working together to make rental housing, and therefore neighborhoods, succeed for the mutual good of both.

Rental housing is an important and integral element of Milwaukee. About 58% of the residents of Milwaukee are tenants. In some neighborhoods, such as 53233 the number of renters exceeds 97%. The success or failure of neighborhoods and rental housing are closely tied.

Rental Housing is the largest small business in Milwaukee with over $7 billion invested in Milwaukee. (MPROP assessor records October 2015) Rental properties account for well over a half billion dollars a year of economic impact, starting with $190 million in property taxes, sewer and water charges, maintenance, insurance and everything else that goes into running rental housing. The Census Bureau found the yearly median operating costs per unit for multifamily rental properties vary between $3,600 per unit for small properties and $5,170 per unit for large properties, adjusted to 2016 dollars. These numbers exclude interest and mortgage servicing.

Providing rental housing in older, poorer neighborhoods is difficult, challenging and unappreciated work. Many have failed, some are opportunists or worse, but the majority were simply overwhelmed financially and mentally by the task at hand.

Owners are impacted by the financial and social problems of their tenants, the high costs of maintenance and lack of capital to address those problems. It is not the owner’s lifestyle that contributes to insect infestations or broken windows, yet it is the owner and not the occupant that is accountable both financially and recently in the media.

Not only do private owners suffer these burdens. One only needs to look at the long history of failure among Milwaukee’s nonprofit housing providers. (see excerpt below) These groups had every advantage over the small private investor. They had significant financial resources, typically through Block Grant and other government funding and grants; they had well-paid and well-educated staff; they often obtaining properties without costs, and they had access to the best tenants on Rent Assistance. Nearly all of Milwaukee’s nonprofit housing providers failed financially.

These groups had every advantage over the small private investor. They had significant financial resources, typically through Block Grant and other government funding and grants; they had well-paid and well-educated staff; they often obtaining properties without costs, and they had access to the best tenants on Rent Assistance. Nearly all of Milwaukee’s nonprofit housing providers failed financially.

Or one could look at the Milwaukee’s Housing Authority budget to see the costs they incur housing low-income Milwaukeeans. Here too is an organization that gets Rent Assistance tenants, tenants who risk losing their housing subsidy if they fail to comply with the rules or pay their rent. HACM does not rent to the populations with bad histories, leaving the segment most in need of housing to the private sector.

Milwaukee should strive to encourage a successful private rental housing market in this once great city, but since the mid-1980s’ the city adopted a culture of hatred towards private rental owners. That has not produced positive results, but instead, discourages the right people from participating.

If Milwaukee rental housing became more sustainable, where people willing to invest their time and money were to make reasonable profits, it would be harder for the few charlatans to exist because of increased competition for available properties. An added benefit is more interest in investing in Milwaukee’s rental housing will result in an increase in values and therefore an increase in the tax base.

Alderman Witkowski, who is the co-author of this proposal, created a Local Business Action Team to help small business succeed. Rental housing is the largest segment of small business within the city and one that may have the greatest impact on the well-being of the city. With our half billion dollars a year of economic impact, a similar effort should be undertaken towards making private rental housing more successful.

Let’s look at the recent Journal Sentinel series on landlords.

This investigative reporting – using easily available public records – showed that the individual owners behind LLCs could be revealed and that other properties owned by these individuals or different LLCs could also be exposed. Changes in the LLC laws are not necessary, contrary to the assertions of Aldermen Murphy and Witkowski that bad landlords are operating in secret. The City Attorney’s office has recently been successful in having a receiver appointed for the various ownership entities used by inner city landlord

Within existing laws, the city could have caused most of the featured landlords out of business, through docketing and enforcing code enforcement fines, and foreclosing f tax delinquencies. For whatever reason the city allowed these owners to continue unabated.

Perhaps most troubling is the relentless attack on James H. Herrick, who works for Baird, that went as far as the Mayor calling for the guy to be fired. He is not a member of the Association nor known to us.

The Journal reports that inspectors show up and find basement doors illegally padlocked. In the article, the owner’s manager states he did this in an attempt to keep drug dealers from entering the property.

There is no argument that inoperable fire doors are an unreasonable risk to occupants. Clearly, this was a novice mistake made by someone who did not understand fire codes.

The correct response by DNS would be for the inspector to explain the problem and demand the owner’s rep immediately remove the padlocks. If the owner did not comply, the Department of Neighborhood Services has an essential services program where the city can contract a repair and then bill the owner.

Instead, the inspection supervisor chose to placard the building and force 50 families out onto the street. Closing a 50 unit building would not have been the DNS response had the property been located on the Eastside, Bayview or the Southwest side. In these more affluent neighborhood they would have compelled a solution that kept the tenants safely in their homes.

But this building is in a poor, minority neighborhood.  The city’s response was harsh as it typically is in these neighborhoods. The DNS employees who acted out of spite towards the owners and a disregard of the tenant population, instead of attempting to protect the homes of 50 low income, primarily minority tenants, should lose their jobs.

The 50 unit building remained closed for a couple of months. It is no surprise that the building ended in foreclosure and sold at a distressed price due to this.

The owner’ use of single property LLCs, in this case, were an advantage to the city. Because the owner had his properties in separate LLCs, this allowed only this one to be foreclosed upon, instead of all 13.

It is a lending industry practice in larger real estate deals to require single asset entities to separate liability from one project and others with a similar ownership interest.

It would actually be in Milwaukee’s best interest if every investment property was in a properly segregated LLC. That way a failure at one property would not have a domino effect and bring down perhaps dozens or more other properties that are under similar ownership.

Then the Journal and Mayor put pressure on Baird, Herrick’s employer, placing his job in jeopardy. What advantage does the city receive in this? If he loses his job, his remaining properties will likely fall into financial problems as well, resulting in more boarded buildings, displaced tenants, and distressed sales.

Similarly, what did the city gain by the public attack on NBA basketball star Devin Harris? While it may have been expedient in causing the payment of some fines and taxes, overall it sent a clear warning to others with capital “Do not invest in Milwaukee. If you fail, you will be ridiculed and perhaps lose your career.” Similar results could have been obtained with a private conversation with Harris, thereby not discouraging outside investment.

Journal article on non-profit failures

West End joins a list of other nonprofit housing organizations that have failed in the last 10 years, including Walker’s Point Development Corp., East Side Housing Action Coalition and Community Development, and the Westside Conservation Corp.

 

Dec 31
The rental industry needs to be more active legislatively.
The first step in legislative action is knowing who your elected officials are and sharing your concerns.  Here is a link to find yours.
Mar 25

Published in the 3/25/16 Milwaukee Journal
By Heiner Giese

Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted” with the subtitle “Poverty and Profit in the American City” has generated much discussion in the Milwaukee community and among us Milwaukee landlords. We generally agree with the Journal Sentinel’s March 13 editorial calling for more discussion on how to provide decent housing for the poor.

While Desmond does an excellent job of presenting and humanizing the struggles of the poor to pay their rent, he doesn’t adequately cover the “profit” aspect of his subtitle. Out of 30 landlords interviewed, he only presents case studies on two successful ones. The marginal operators and the failed shoestring capitalists (to say nothing of the many nonprofit housing groups who have failed) are not featured.

I have been involved in housing issues for over three decades — as a former hands-on landlord, as attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin and as an attorney representing landlords (and sometimes tenants) in eviction and foreclosure court.

My clients have properties in all areas of Milwaukee and nearby suburbs. But in the inner city, many landlords have failed. I have sued them or defended them when their rental property was foreclosed on because they couldn’t make the mortgage or land contract payment because the rent money wasn’t coming in. A good chunk of the abandoned houses you’ll see when driving through central city Milwaukee were once owned by landlords.

Desmond is right in pointing to two correlating equations: difficulty paying your rent because you’re poor = getting evicted; getting evicted = getting deeper into poverty. And there is a third equation: getting evicted once = getting evicted again.

The details are not in the book but one of Desmond’s featured tenants had seven evictions filed against her in the 12 year period from 2003 through January, 2015, three of them since she was in his survey in August 2008. So ask yourself, what responsible landlord who needs the rent to pay the mortgage, the taxes, the water and sewer bill and the repair costs for the windows broken by neighborhood vandals would rent to this struggling lady?

Housing vouchers for all, so no one pays more than, say, 40% of their income for rent is an answer. Except you wonder if it is politically doable. Will John and Mary Homeowner give up some of their mortgage interest tax deduction so their government subsidy can instead help their neighbor on the other side of the tracks pay her rent?

Converting part of cash welfare benefits to a voucher for those who have an eviction record would make them more acceptable in the private rental market.

Another remedy touted by Desmond is to provide lawyers for those facing eviction. But that will not prevent eviction for the vast majority of defendants in eviction court who are behind on the rent.A lawyer can only help them delay the eviction. So they get another free month out of their landlord and who winds up paying for that “free” month? It is their low-income neighbor in the unit upstairs whose monthly rent is $50 higher than it should be to make up for the landlord’s loss. No wonder, as Desmond shows, that rents in the inner city aren’t much less than in the suburbs.

Some solutions proposed by Desmond would work, but others won’t or can’t garner legislative support in today’s political climate.

Ron Hegwood, our association president, recently wrote: “A good tenant is worth their weight in gold. How can we create more good tenants and protect and help the ones we have?” We look forward to meeting with tenant advocates and public officials to seek answers to that question.

Heiner Giese is a Milwaukee attorney who represents the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, Inc.

Mar 19

Desmond and others have a nifty little saying “Rent eats first” that implies landlords get paid at the expense of people eating.  The truth is food stamps (SNAP/Food Shares) are given to most people and families under the poverty level while housing assistance is given to very few.  That’s why we read about evictions and homelessness and not about starvation.  In a country as wealthy and great as America, we should not be hearing of either.

One workable voucher program could be similar to food stamps where all people and families below the poverty level, in addition to food stamps, would receive a housing allotment that can only be spent on housing.

The recipients would have a choice of renting from anyone without the government saying, for example, ‘you have two small kids so you are only eligible to rent a two bedroom in the $630 price range and we will pay $500 of that’   Instead the recipient would receive a $500 housing allotment.  They then could rent a $500 place and pay nothing out of pocket or decide they want to rent a $750 three bedroom in a different neighborhood and must figure out how to pay the other $250 themselves.

Such a plan would help stabilize the private housing industry while at the same time would allow the recipients much more freedom of choice in their housing decisions.  It would also be less costly to manage than Section 8.  To achieve this the payments would have to be available to all rental owners except of course those banned due to fraud or similar.

Some of the money could come from adjusting the current W2.  As the vouchers would earmark monies for housing the volume of evictions should subside.


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