In my last blog post, I talked about a situation where WAOW-TV Channel 9 reported that the City of Wausau was taking a landlord to court because a tenant had a couch outside.
In that blog post, I indicated that in situations such as this, there is really only one tool in the landlord tool box – eviction. And, that tool may not be worthy of the infraction. In my blog post, I made it very clear that I was writing based on what was reported by Channel 9, and I had not talked to either party (the landlord or the city).
I have now talked to the City to get their side of things. I was at the Economic Development Committee meeting yesterday to learn more about the Federal Building apartment proposal and before the meeting, City Attorney Anne Jacobson spoke with me giving me a little bit of background.
The City of Wausau inspections department works under a BOCA codebook (and no I don’t honestly know what BOCA stands for) that dates from the mid 1970’s. Under that code book, when there is a violation, notices are sent to the property owner, regardless if it was the property owner or the property occupant causing the problem.
Although notices are initially sent to the property owner, when those notices turn into an enforcement action, the City can choose to either go after the property owner AND/OR the property occupant. Attorney Jacobson indicated to me yesterday that if the problem is clearly a tenant issue, in all fairness the City would prefer to take its enforcement action against the party actually causing the problem.
So… why in this case is the city pursuing a case against the property owner and not the tenant?
Basically, 3 words….. Lack Of Communication.
Notices of the code violation were delivered to the property owner. According to Attorney Jacobson, the property owner never contacted the City to let them know what the property owner was doing about the situation.
As I said in my last blog entry, I have received similar notices about a couch on a deck or garbage cans out when they shouldn’t be. When I receive these notices, before sending some type of eviction letter, I normally send a letter to the tenant explaining the notice that I got from the City and asking them to bring the property into compliance. In my letter to the tenant, I include a copy of the notice from the City. Also, a copy of that letter to the tenant will be sent to the City inspections department. That way, the inspections department knows I did something (I asked the tenant to fix the problem), and at the same time, the inspections department now knows who the tenant is so that if enforcement action is needed, they can pursue the party causing the problem and not me.
Actually, this procedure has become so effective that I seldom get written notices from the inspections department. I will often simply get a phone call, and they know that I will follow up with a letter and almost always gain compliance that way.
In the WAOW article, the landlord said that they had told the tenants that something needed to be done about the couch. However, the property owner never communicated with the City what type of action (if any) was being taken. The property owner never wrote or called the inspections department with a status report. The property owner never provided the inspections department with the tenant’s contact information.
Therefore, the primary reason for the City pursuing the case was multiple notices sent to the property owner, with no response from the property owner and the problem not being fixed.
As always… there are two sides to any story and that is the City’s position as shared with me by the City Attorney.
I still maintain that a property owner should not be punished because of the actions of the property occupants. However, I do agree that the property owner has a reasonable duty to try to get compliance when noticed by the City. There is no requirement that the property owner share with the City what they are doing to get compliance, but in my experience, open communication with the inspections department goes a very long way to solve problems long before they get to litigation.
(NOTE – When speaking to City Attorney Jacobson yesterday afternoon, I was trying to recover from some flash bug that bit me.. I was fine at 1:30 PM on Monday, and by 2:00 PM, it felt like a Mack truck hit me. I was still not 100% yesterday afternoon, so if I misunderstood something, or am mis-quoting, I apologize in advance and will be more than happy to blog the corrections.)