Feb 17

No single idea, thought or policy has done as much harm to urban American than the political expediency of ignoring occupants’ responsibilities.  While Milwaukee certainly does not maintain a monopoly on these ill-conceived ideas, we are a front runner.

Take today’s Journal article on snow removal as a timely, but far from unique example.

“A city ordinance requires snow and ice to be removed or prevented from posing a hazard on sidewalks within 24 hours after snow has stopped falling. If the city is forced to provide the service, property owners – not their renters – are charged $93 for a 60-foot lot and a $25 administration fee for the first occurrence. That administration fee grows to $50 for each subsequent occurrence”

Any tenant reading this article thinks ‘And here that no good son of a sewer rat I rent from put in the lease that I had to shovel.  Even the Journal says it’s his job, not mine.  No way I’m going out there in the cold and do his job!.’

Now had the Journal Company wished to write a balanced article that attempted to solve a problem it would have included the fact rental property owners can require tenants of one and two family buildings to shovel their own walks.  The article should have gone on to say ‘If your rental agreement requires you to clear the walks and you don’t the owner can do the work and charge you or can pass along any city charges and fines.’

You say ‘Perhaps this is just a single misinformed reporter.’  That would be great as it would be easy to solve with a quick call to the Journal’s editorial management.  But unfortunately this goes far deeper.  It seems every article written ignores tenants’ responisbilities.  A fire breaks out and the are quick to point out there were no working smoke detectors.  The article fails to mention that there were a full set of detectors, all with their batteries removed.

Part of the problem is city departments such as Neighborhood Services have their own “ Public Information Officers ”, a fancy term for press secretaries, to spin the news for the benefit of their budgets and political views.  It is to their advantage to maintain public perception that rental property owners prey on the poor, helpless tenant.  (How can the city afford departmental PR people when they can’t even afford enough cops and firefighters is a whole other subject)

Another part of the problem is it is far more difficult for the city to try to make 357,558 (Census data)  rental occupants responsible for their actions than it is to blame the 5,419 (City database)  folks who own four or more rental units.  So the city takes what they consider the expedient path.  However we all know the expediency is often the quick path to long term negative results.

When viewed in a very narrow shortsighted fashion, yeah pushing the responsibilities of the tenant onto the property owner appears to be at least cost effective.  However in the long-term the City has furthered the decline of the neighborhoods by building on the misperception that tenants bear no responsibility for their actions or the actions of their kids. That tenants have no responsibility to keep their yards and homes clean. No responsibility to protect their lives and the lives of their children by leaving the batteries in the smoke detectors.

City officials argue that owners have civil recourse.  If this was a viable idea the city would not be so adverse to holding occupants accountable.  But, we know and they know you can’t even collect unpaid rent from most tenants do to income that is exempt from garnishment.

Fines, err… I mean fees… are a big part of the City’s shell game on property taxes.  The process of appealing fees is frustrating at best.  First you must pay a $25 fee to get the right to appeal, then you have to take a morning off work only to face a process that lacks many elements of due process such as proper discovery, the ability to compel witnesses, the deciders of fact draw a paycheck from the very entity that you are appealing from. I’m sure there are more flaws that I can’t remember offhand.

A couple of years ago I had an appeal I thought would be a walk in the park.  The city sent us a fee for an alleged snow removal.  Our employees had shoveled the walks, taking before and after pictures.  The day before the city alleges to have cleared the walks our siding crew was two days into residing the property.  They too had start and finish pictures each day.  In the background of these pictures were clear sidewalks.  We had computer generated receipts from the company that we purchased the siding that bore both the address of the property and the date two days prior to the city’s alleged shoveling. We even had weather data showing no snow fell from the day our crews cleared the walks until a two weeks after the date alleged.  We paid our twenty five bucks and expected to win.  The city guy had some picture, but none of them showed the siding job that was well underway on the date they claim to have cleared the walk. The city’s pictures could not have been taken on the day the city claimed.  Yet the board who ruled in the city’s favor – surprise, surprise.  This gets to the essence of last weeks discussion on why is it a problem when an inspector misrepresents himself to be a fireman, a police officer or an assessor to gain access to your property.

Ultimately these fines/fees are breaking many property owners who are on the financial edge, leaving even more properties abandoned. The city acknowledges that foreclosed homes are a problem for the entire community.

Vacant properties burn at a higher rate (than those that are occupied),” Collins said. “They are looted at a high rate, and they are more frequently the sites of illegal activities. One vacant house can blight an entire block.”– DNS Commissioner Collins quoted in the 1/20/08 Journal www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=709341

But the city’s fees not only force some owners on the edge to fail, they also prevent the quick resolution after the foreclosure. The same article quoted foreclosure attorney James Mulligan as saying “We were $1,500 apart on a sale,” Mulligan said. “If the city had forgiven $1,500 in code violations, they would have collected the taxes, and one home would be occupied rather than boarded up.”

So what can you do?

First make sure your rental agreements address the issue of tenant caused city fees.  A few years ago we changed our agreements and nonstandards to make it very clear that tenants will pay for their infractions that the city charges us for.

It is kind of funny to hear a usually nice polite tenant swearing like a drunk sailor after they  receive  a $100 “fee” for the city for putting their old mattress at the alley, dutifully calling for a special pick up, being told by the city that it will be picked up as part of the regular pick up and they should bother calling any more – just put the items next to the trash.

Very recently we changed the form letter we give our tenants when their actions cause a city fee.  Now the notice includes the phone numbers and addresses for the inspector, the inspector’s supervisor, the tenant’s Alderman and the Mayor.    Tenants are constituent every bit as much as owner occupants, even though many pols seem to overlook this fact.  Elected officials should hear of abuses directly from all those who are affected. I am interested in seeing how this works.

Another thing you should do is get a digital camera, even the one in your cell phone will do, and document the heck out of everything. Then set up a system so you can retrieve them.  Despite an appeal process that doesn’t provide much relief to rental owners, document, document document. Someday it will come in handy for some purpose.  You can get a decent Kodak digital at Best Buy or Office Depot for under a hundred bucks including a memory card and case.

Finally owners have to band together to put an end this nonsense.  If you are not a member of the Apartment Association, join.  If you are a member, become active.  If you are active – thank you and please let the board know what support you need.

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