Tonight is the Wausau City Council meeting where the budget is finalized. However, actually more important to me is the City Council will be considering three changes to the housing codes being proposed by the Public Health and Safety Committee. I did testify at the public hearing and at the most recent Committee meeting, the Committee did allow me (and other landlords) to ask questions and state additional concerns. (They had no obligation to solicit the additional input at the meeting after the public hearing, so I appreciate that they did let us talk.)
I do plan on speaking on this item at the council meeting, however if there are a number of people speaking on topics, the Mayor has historically limited comments to three minutes. Therefore, I am going to publish my comments here now on my blogs (both at Wausau Daily Herald and at Citizen Wausau) and then when I address the council, I only need to summarize these comments.
The three changes up for approval tonight are to 1) allow for fees for repeated property re-inspections; 2) prohibit non-operational vehicles in the public view; and 3) require landlords to have a registered agent.
It is important to note a brief history of how these three changes came about. Mayor Tipple requested that a Task Force be created to study issues and provide recommendations “for a Code Enforcement Program that would ensure decent and safe housing for all City of Wausau residents.” The Task Force consisted of Deb Hadley, Matt Kaiser, Lisa Rasmussen, Ann Werth, Roger Sydow and Tammy Stratz. The Task Force met from February 17th, 2009 to June 23rd, 2009. In preparing its recommendations, the Task Force interviewed Anne Jacobson (City Attorney), Mark Sauer (Municipal Judge), Cliff Ambriz (Wausau Property Inspector), Officer Max LaPorte (Wausau Police Department) and Mindy Brandenburg (Community Development Specialist).
The Task Force came up with a number of recommendations based on their stated directive. Included in these recommendations are the proposals that are going to be voted on tonight. Also, the Task Force is recommending that another Property Inspector be hired, and in order to pay for this new inspector, work toward a program to license rental units and have the licensing fees cover this new expense. Notice, how even though I have heard many people in City Hall tell me how important it is for property owners to work with the City and vice versa, there were no rental property owners on the Task Force, nor were any property owners interviewed. As a matter of fact, in the minutes of the 9/21/09 Public Health and Safety Committee meeting when “Abitz questioned if this had been brought forward to any of the rental associations,” the answer was basically no. That there were public hearings scheduled (so far one public hearing on 10/19 that was published very late in the day on 10/13) and that their would be meetings with neighborhood groups (which in my personal experience, have a tendency to omit renters and rental property owners).
In looking at the stated objective of the task force, “for a Code Enforcement Program that would ensure decent and safe housing for all City of Wausau residents,” two of the three proposed changes, in my personal opinion, to lead toward that objective.
Although the City can levy fines for code violations, collecting of these fines is a completely different issue. By charging a fee for re-inspections, a fee of this nature can be added to the property tax bill if unpaid. Therefore giving property owners “motivation” to bring the property into compliance by the stated deadline. I get that, I can understand that, and I can agree this will lead toward the goal of “decent and safe housing for all City of Wausau residents.” I do know that in talking with other property owners, there are some concerns about this proposal because from time to time, the work that is needed may take longer than the deadline given in the notice. I know with one property owner I talked to, they purchased the distressed property and in order to do the work to bring it back to code, permits and other legal steps were needed that took longer than normal, so there were concerns about how a situation like that would be handled. However, my personal experience with the Wausau Inspections Department is that if you could not meet their deadline, but contacted them with a reasonable reason and a reasonable revised deadline, they normally will work with you – but again, that has been my personal experience.
No longer allowing non-operational vehicles will also contribute to the stated goal of the Task Force as assigned by the mayor. Many landlords I talk to don’t want these cars on the property, and having this be now against code gives the landlords a tool to force tenants to comply. These cars created safety issues, and are often unsightly.
However, the last proposal, the registered agent, in my opinion does nothing to further the goal of decent and safe housing. As a matter of fact, in its present form, it might actually have the unintended consequences of making the current housing situation worse.
The proposed ordinance is that every residential rental needs to have on record with the inspections department the owners name, street address (not a P.O. Box), and phone number. If the owner is a person and the live outside of Marathon County, they need to have a person within Marathon County as their “agent” for contacting and for service of process. If the owner is a business entity, AND HAS A FULL-TIME OFFICE, the business can be its own contact ONLY IF the business is located within the City of Wausau, otherwise that business needs to have an individual within Marathon County be its agent.
This does NOTHING to help provide decent and safe housing… NOTHING!
What it does is provides the inspection department with information on the responsible owners of rental housing, however the City already has this information. Those property owners who don’t comply with housing codes and don’t care about their properties or their tenants, those who are the ones that are difficult to serve process on.. those property owners that are the entire reason for this proposal, they are not very likely to comply with the proposal so the City STILL WONT HAVE THEIR CONTACT INFORMATION. Instead, they will just have one more thing that they can be fined for and still won’t comply with. So, after this ordinance passes, the City will be able to contact the people they can already contact and still will not be able to contact the people they can’t contact now. Yep, that accomplished a lot!!
This ordinance, as drafted, may REDUCE THE QUALITY OF RENTAL HOUSING! If the owner is out of county, it will now add an expense to those property owners as I assume anyone willing to be an “agent” will NOT be willing to do it for free. Normally, when costs increase for a property owner, those costs increases are passed on to the tenants making housing less affordable. In the current rental market, that is not really possible, so instead this additional cost will take away from funds that might have otherwise have been spent on improving the properties.
Also, for some properties owned by businesses, getting personal service may actually be more difficult under this proposal. Out of our full-time office on Grand Avenue in Schofield, we operate two businesses. If you wanted to serve Emmerich & Associates, Inc., or if you wanted to serve HelpRent, Co., all you would have to do is come in the door of the office, and serve the notice on anyone working here. DONE. However, under the proposal as drafted, because our office is 4 ½ blocks south of the City Limits, we would be required to have a person for service in Marathon County instead. For Emmerich & Associates, Inc., that probably means Mr. Emmerich who lives in Mosinee and is very active. He is not an easy person to catch at home. For HelpRent, Co., that makes me the agent, and although I live closer, in the Town of Wausau, I also am very active and am seldom home. I have various meetings and classes, I am often out of town, I am a hard person to catch. By making individuals able to represent themselves within Marathon County, but limiting businesses with full time offices to the City of Wausau, this double standard may actually make contacting the owner or serving process MORE DIFFICULT in many cases.
Also, with this additional complication for out-of-county owners, investors who live out of county who might be interested in purchasing residential rentals in the City now have this additional requirement. When you can find properties to invest in within the City of Wausau as well as the outlying communities, the smart investors will look to spend their money where management of the properties are the easiest. Therefore, some residential rentals that are in distress, that are looking for someone new to buy the property and put the money into it that it needs, that pool of potential investors may now get smaller because out of county owners may not be willing to have to try to find an in-county agent.
Finally, although the Task Force was presented with the goal of addressing the quality of rental housing, if this registered owner list is such a good idea, why does it also not include non-residential properties? Also, if this registered owner list is such a good idea, why is it only there for the inspections department? Should this list also not be on file with the Wausau Police Department?
Had the Task Force included a property owner or two, they may have came up with better recommendations that would actually achieve the stated goal. The least the Task Force could have done was meet with property owners and/or the Wausau Area Apartment Association to get their input. The Task Force could have contacted tenants to get their input as well.
Again, I am told by those within City Hall that they have a desire to work together with property owners to make Wausau a better place. Please – Stop telling me this and instead SHOW ME with your actions. The City Council can show me by tabling this registered agent requirement and have the Public Health & Safety Committee or the Code Enforcement Task Force go back and go beyond the statutory minimum and come up with some proposals that will actually help.
THE CITY NEEDS TO LOOK AT HOW THEY SOLOCITED STAKE-HOLDER INPUT FOR THE 400 BLOCK – IF THAT KIND OF EFFORT CAN BE MADE FOR THAT PROJECT, YOU WOULD THINK THAT WAUSAU’S HOUSING QUALITY IS WORTH AT LEAST THAT MUCH CARE AN ATTENTION AS WELL.
I ask the City Council, when looking at safe and decent housing with the City of Wausau, that they demonstrate to the residents of that housing that this is important enough to address with the care, consideration, and stakeholder input that it deserves.