Landlord Won’t Fix It, Tenant Pays Reduced Rent (Rent Abatement Coming to Wausau?)

In what seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Mayor Tipple started a Housing Task Force, tasked to come up with ways to better address blight that was gaining ground in some of the City’s more mature neighborhoods.  AlthoughWausau’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 series 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 ofWausaubecause of a tenant’s couch on a 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 toWausau’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) ofWausau’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 overWausau(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 beforeWausau’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 withMadison’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 ofWausauwill 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.

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About drrent

Wausau, Wisconsin Landlord, past president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, Host of the Dr Rent Radio Show on WNRB-LP, 93.3 FM, Wausau, WI
This entry was posted in Blight, Housing Task Force, Rent Abatement and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Landlord Won’t Fix It, Tenant Pays Reduced Rent (Rent Abatement Coming to Wausau?)

  1. Dr Rent,
    I am in desperate need of your help. I am doing all that I can to help a friend and her family who is in dire living conditions, with no where to go in our rural community with a family of 6.
    They live in a trailer, and 6/7 of the rooms, including the bathroom and hallway, have needs for repairs. The roof is caving in the kitchen and living room and there is a gaping hole in the floor in the back bedroom, the repair to the corner in the bedroom will not hold up through the winter, there is no hot water throughout the house, and the kitchen sink broke.

    The landlord is on the Village Board, so there is no way we can go to the Village Hall for help. We do not have a Rent Abatement Program in Dunn County. However, your website informs us that tenants already have a provision in Wisconsin Law under (WI SS 704.07 (4)). This gives us hope for now. I think that my friend should only pay a portion of rent to the landlord based on the number of rooms needing repairs. So by my calculations, one room is totally tenantable so that means out of a rent of $425, she should pay the landlord $67 plus the monthly pet fee until such time that the repairs are made according to code. According to the website, the law is vague on how much can be withheld, but is clear to say the entire rent amount can not be withheld, thus the calculations. Have they settled the questions on this, if so, how much should be withheld? Is it based on a percentage of the rent, or an actual amount? I have contacted numerous county resources and agencies and they are all interested in having a Rent Abatement Program here in Dunn County, for none knows what to do in this situation. Everyone has advised her to keep paying her rent despite the landlord refusing to uphold his lease agreement with them, or they tell her to move out if it’s so bad. Easy for them to say when they are not facing this situation personally, and easier said than done when to move requires money, which this family is in short supply of.

    We need the landlord to be held responsible and accountable to this family and his rental units… for if this is happening to this family in one of his units, it calls into question what his other tenants are putting up with. Their lease strictly forbids them from making their own repairs, yet he does nothing about it.

    This is August already, they have rented for 4 months now, and they have continually asked the landlord to make repairs and he constantly puts them off… “I will get to it when I get to it.” When they first moved in, he did have hip surgery and they were understanding and conceded to his recovery from the surgery, but he can still hire someone to make the repairs if he himself cannot. In November, the landlord and his wife migrate to Florida. This has always been the norm for them since I moved to this area 8 years ago. So it would be highly inconvenient for these tenants to wait through the winter for them to return and MAYBE make the repairs. You can see the urgency of this situation. Can you please advise us what we can do?

    I have given her a checklist of the things she needs to do, but we are running out of time. November is coming soon and in 3/2 months, the landlords turn into snowbirds.

  2. drrent says:

    Joy,

    Thank you for your comment and I am sorry to hear about this situation. I have modified your comment to remove your contact information, I hope that was okay.

    The #1 think I would recommend your friends do is that they contact an attorney. I am also fowarding your full comment (including your contact information) to two attorney friends of mine. Since I am not an attorney I cannot give you legal advice, and I don’t want you to confuse anything I say as legal advice.

    However, the way the statute is written, the tenants would be within their right to pay a reduced rent that conincides with their diminished use of the property. Without a specific ordinance like the one Madison has or the one we are drafting in Wausau, there is no real hard and fast way to come up with what that number is.

    Basically, first step is to ensure a paper trail, make sure that your friends have written letters explaining to the landlord what the problem is. If everything thus far has been verbal, the landlord could deny he knew about the problem.

    Assuming there is some type of paper trail, the next step I would do would be to pay the reduced rent and include a letter explaining why the rent was reduced, and how they came up with the number that they did.

    If the landlord disagreed with the amount the rent was shorted (which they almost always do), the landlord would issue an eviction notice (probably a 5-Day), and eventually file an eviction action. In court, the landlord would tell the court you are evicting because the rent is short, and the tenant’s defense would be the reason the rent was short was because of the issues with the property. If the judge agreed withholding the rent was reasonable, the eviction would be dismissed. If the judge thought the amount was unfair, the eviction may stand. Therefore, you can see why getting some type of legal advice/representation would be in their best interest.

    Having this person be a member of the village board does not prevent you with reporting the issue to the inspections department of that village if they have one. Also, you still have the county health department and the Wisconsin Dept of Consumer Protection you could turn to.

    Hopefully this information is helpful.

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