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.

 

Sep 02

Over on the ApartmentAssoc Yahoo Group we had a discussion about the number of foreclosed properties Milwaukee has for sale and how the city limits sales to owner occupants.  Orv Seymor replied:

You are missing the point, the city does not want any investors buying or rehabbing any of these properties.

They want control over the entire rental market in Milwaukee or they want to be able to say that they made these bldgs. available on the private market before they tore them down and built new housing with taxpayer dollars, which again, would give them control over the entire  rental market in Milwaukee.

You see, they cannot stand to see anyone make a profit when they in the  housing business

I believe the City’s motivation is more perverse than even Orv’s opinion.

Rather than trying to control the entire rental market and therein the profits as Orv suggests, I would argue these sales restrictions by the city are just another part of the process in which the City’s attempts to exclude the poor and racial minorities from Milwaukee.

Other tools in the City’s toolbox include excessive property tax assessments of lower valued neighborhoods, disparate code enforcement practices that ignores worse conditions at owner occupied housing, while excessive enforcement of even petty violations on rental housing occupied by poorer or racial minority tenants, as well as differential rules for owner occupied and rental housing.

Evidence of this argument? Look at sales of Milwaukee Eastside, Southwest Side and Bayview homes, cash or conventional financing, compared to their assessments. Then do the same with sales, cash or conventional financing, of properties in the 12th or 15th Aldermanic Districts. Those in the higher valued neighborhoods are selling at or above the assessment, while those in the lower valued neighborhoods are selling for often less than 35% of assessment. The effect is lower income occupants have a higher tax burden than more expensive homes as a percentage of their home’s value.

The next time you get an exterior order take a look around the block. Look up the neighboring properties that are in similar or worse condition on the City’s property information site. Most often you will see the owner occupied properties, and even those were the tenants more closely match the race of the neighbors, are ignored. You may, with a bunch of effort, even find the Alderman was behind the complaint. If the City truly thought this was legal, why do they fight so hard to hide the fact that city employees or officials were the complainant .

Then make a complaint to DNS on those adjoining properties and demand that DNS holds these adjoining properties to the same standard as they hold yours. If you are extremely persistent they may even write orders on the worst of those neighboring properties. Go back and review the records and the properties six months later. Often you will find the orders on those adjoining properties show on the City’s computer as being complied with, even though many of the violations remain. The disparity is so ingrained that when asked, the inspectors often justify their actions with social economical arguments that have nothing to do with codes or housing conditions.

On our properties I document these things with written complaints, screenshots of city records and, in aggregate, thousands of photos of our properties and those adjoining. I urge you to do the same. If you wish to share your documentation with me that would be great.

In part Milwaukee stole a page from the St Paul MN playbook, as evidenced by writings between our former Commissioner of DNS and his St Paul counterpart that were obtained by St Paul, MN landlords’ during discover in one of many federal cases St Paul landlords have filed against their city’s (alleged) discriminatory and disparate inspection practices. One St Paul case was accepted by the US Supreme Court only to have the Obama Administration pressure St Paul into dropping their bid for review by the SCOTUS on the eve of oral arguments.

A St Paul official expressed the view at a public hearing that if you ‘Get rid of the nest, you get rid of the vermin’ (Not at the office to grab the actual quote, but this is close) It seems like this too was a sentiment adopted by Milwaukee’s leadership and those sentiment have spread to surrounding communities. Make it impossible to provide housing for certain classes of people to live in your city and they all go away.

Disparate housing code enforcement, rules affecting only certain classes of properties, property tax assessment schemes that put greater burdens on poorer neighborhoods and restrictions on purchasing, all aimed at making it difficult or unreasonable for members of protected classes to live in a city is not proper use of police powers. Preventing these type of discriminatory policies is really the foundation of all Fair Housing laws.

If a city is to employee housing code enforcement and property tax assessment in a manner to drive out certain social economic groups, then those efforts should be funded by the kkk, not taxpayers.

May 26

The Mayor and head of DNS discuss the “zombie” housing problem in  this Milwaukee Journal article.  The article is interesting, the comments even more so.

“City officials define [zombie housing] a bit more precisely: when title to a property remains with someone who believes he or she has lost the property as a result of foreclosure. “

“Both Dahlberg and Barrett say they don’t understand why banks allow the problem to proliferate. “

While zombie housing seems to be a new phenomena to the city officials, we discussed it since at least July 12, 2009.

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ApartmentAssoc/conversations/messages/11702

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ApartmentAssoc/conversations/messages/11828

http://justalandlord.com/?s=zombie

At that time I predicted the ordinances that had just been passed to make lenders more accountable would actually result in many more properties abandoned by both the owner and the lender.

The city also makes matters worse through reinspection fees.  I’m sure they think this is a cash cow, but it is a further cause of the abandonment problem.  On the front end these fees force marginal owners into failure and on the back end they make it less likely the lender or owner can sell the property.  Banks that control foreclosures in Milwaukee have adopted a policy of not paying taxes until the property sells.  When they receive offers they run title prior to accepting offers. Too many fees and they let the property revert to the city.

This was the case with two singles on one lot that I made an offer on a couple of years ago.  Bank ran title and rejected the offer due to reinspection fees (the front house was owner occupied, there was a sewer back up that they could not afford to fix and suddenly they were being billed $375 a month)   The city then foreclosed on taxes, the property was stripped of metal, druggies used it as a dry place to get high and finally they started the one house on fire, that in turned burned down a neighboring house, taking it off the tax roll too.  All along the city has had to mow the yard, shovel the walks, reboard it as it kept getting broken in.

Here is a post on how the city’s ordinances, no matter how well intended or logical on the surface, are actually contributing to the problem.

Mar 25

Thomas Russom writes on the ApartmentAssoc YahooGroups email list:

At our  recent monthly meeting [of the Apartment Association of SE WI] Attorney Doug Pessefall presented an overview of the “Recent Trends in Wisconsin’s Property Tax Assessment Process”. Tim Ballering has retained Attorney Pessefall to challenge the City of Milwaukee assessments of sales of foreclosed properties. We all know that there a huge difference between the assessed value of a foreclosed property and its market value reflected in the actual sale. Tim Ballering has a compelling argument that if the property cannot be sold, for cash, at the assessed value, then THE ASSESSED VALUE IS WRONG.

A past member of my church showed up for visit this past Sunday. He is a head assessor in the City of Milwaukee in charge of educating other assessors. I asked him what was the reason for these huge differences in the assessed value of the foreclosed property and the actual market sale of the property.

He replied, ” THESE  SALES ARE NOT NORMAL, they are motivated sales. Banks want to get these properties off their books so they are motivated short sell the properties. If the banks would have kept these properties on the market for a longer selling period of time the sale of the property would have met the burden of the assessment.”

This sounded to me like the liberal nonsense of “if we believe it then it is true” regardless of reality. I pursued the conversation further by telling him of a rural farm house I had to bulldoze. We did not initially follow up on a rehabber offer to purchase the house because a member of the family could not bear to have Grandma’s house turned into a  rental. The house followed the enviable fate of abandoned property- animal entry, vandalized and KOed by a weather event., but that took two years to occur. I said to him” You know that that process occurs much faster in the City”. He replied, “Yes,I know. When they( foreclosed properties) are heavily vandalized they have no value.” When the City’s plan to sell foreclosed properties to only new first home owners and not to rehabbers does not work,they will  beg for bulldozer dollars from the state (taxpayers on the hook) and blame the Governor for not caring about Milwaukee.

Let’s take your (or someone else’)  non foreclosed, non vandalized house in the City of Milwaukee.   Could you sell it for cash or conventional mortgage for the assessed value?  Very unlikely and therefore your assessment is excessive.

Certainly the number of foreclosures has an impact.  In fact Milwaukee’s former chief assessor, Peter Weissenfluh, had won an award from the International Association of Assessing Officers for an article he wrote on how foreclosures suppress the value of nearby  non foreclosure properties

A former long term board member began a slow process of selling off his properties one at a time using a few different brokers.  A smart, knowledgable, diligent guy.  All of the properties were well maintained and occupied.  He was in no hurry to sell.  He was trying his best for top dollar.  Of the sales I am aware of the details it appears he received 30-55% of assessed value.

Of the properties I bought in 2012, one third of these properties were not foreclosures and were exposed to the market on MLS for months.  I did not know the seller, nor the listing broker.  The average price I paid for these was 19.05% of assessed.

The two thirds were indeed foreclosures.  None of the foreclosures we purchased seriously vandalized, most had vinyl siding and vinyl windows, with good roofs etc.  In general they needed little more than had they been vacated by a three year tenant.  Most were ready to rent within a couple weeks.  We paid on average 24.95% of assessed value or more than we paid on average for the non foreclosures

The argument made by the city that the banks were in a hurry to sell has a hole in it as many of the foreclosed properties I bought had been listed on MLS for months.

The city also works hard to hide the truth in valuations.  Of the properties we purchased in 2012 only one appears in their listing of sales data that is posted at:http://assessments.milwaukee.gov/mainsales.html

One would expect that a listing such as this would show all sales or have a disclosure that states that it only includes those sales that supports their assessments.  But it does not.

In 2011 a total of 33 one and two family properties sold in the 12th District.  The average sale price was nearly 35,795 less than assessed. Nearly a$1.2 million less for just 33 sales.   Only two of those sold at or slightly above assessed.  In 2010 it was 38 sales and an average of 26,943 less than assessed value.

The only areas that sales consistently were sold for assessed or more than assessed were the Eastside and one or two assessment neighborhoods in Bayview. This means the most affluent neighborhoods are being subsidized by owners of lower valued properties.

So again I will state, if you could not sell your property within 90 days for cash or conventional financing at assessed value you are being overcharged. 

Mar 11

In a previous post on foreclosures in Milwaukee I mentioned that rental owners spend $90 – 120 million per year in repairs and renovations, to which a reader expands upon by asking what do rental owners pay in property taxes per year.  I thought that an interesting and relevant question so we dug into it a bit.

Rental property owners in Milwaukee pay about $266 million per year in property taxes, another $26 million or so in special assessments, which could be everything from fire inspections to alley and sidewalk repairs to so called reinspection fees. The includes owner occupied properties with a rental unit, as they are landlords as well.

As a side note I was surprised to see how many properties that were clearly investor owned, the owner address was not the same as the property address or the owner is a LLC or corp,  were listed by the city as owner occupied.

Rental owners also pay somewhere around $32 million a year in sewer and water plus associated fees.  This number is much harder to arrive at and may be higher than this. I simply took the gross amount and divided it by number of dwelling units.

One very interesting factoid that I stumbled across while searching for the answer is the number of properties actually taken by the city through tax foreclosure was 745 in 2012, a very significant 60% increase over the 464 taken in 2011.  The treasurer is budgeting even a slightly greater number for 2013.  1152 properties entered the city tax foreclosure pipeline in 2012.  Source: Milwaukee City Treasurer Dept Metrics

Per the U.S. Census around 54.5% of all dwelling units in the city are rentals.  City assessment data puts that number higher, around 64%. The city publicly claims higher owner occupancy as they report the percentage of residential parcels rather than units that are owner occupied.  The census puts vacant housing units at 11.3% with rental vacancies at 4.2% 302,000 people in Milwaukee are tenants. Source: U.S. Census Fact Finder


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