Suburbs go after landlords over troublesome tenants

Property owners can be billed for costs of chronic problems that require police to respond

By LINDA SPICE
lspice@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Aug. 4, 2004

West Milwaukee - Milwaukee County suburbs that are fed up with loud noise, drunken brawls and obnoxious neighbors are following Milwaukee's lead in seeking a way to cover a community's cost when police are sent repeatedly to the same property. Community leaders seeking resolution from property owners - more likely than not landlords with problem tenants - are ready to assess charges for officers' time if the police are called to homes more than three times a month.

West Milwaukee adopted such an ordinance Monday, similar to ones in Cudahy, South Milwaukee and St. Francis, where laws mirror the ordinance adopted in Milwaukee in January 2001.

Nuisance calls can include repeated incidents of battery, littering, prostitution, theft, arson, gambling, graffiti, discharge of a firearm, excessive noise, public drinking and misuse of emergency telephone numbers.

The Milwaukee law, created by Marty Collins, commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood Services, requires that a letter be sent to a property owner regarding the nuisance calls. Any additional calls can result in charges to the tax bill if the owner fails to provide a plan to stop the problems.

Collins said the primary purpose is not so much to generate revenue as it is to "try to change the behaviors so police services are not necessary."

The ordinances do allow property owners to appeal any assessed costs to a designated board within each municipality.

In Wisconsin, any leased property can't be used for illegal purposes.

"What we've asked (landlords) to do is use their lease rights," Collins said. "If they choose not to do that, other taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for the cost of their failure to do so."

So far, Milwaukee's law has been effective, according to data released in July. Of the 364 times the ordinance has been used since July 5, 2001, 81.6% of the property owners who received a letter took care of the problem. The remaining 18.4% were assessed fees, but 25% of those took care of the problem after one charge.

More than 97% of the properties that were studied had reduced calls for service after the initial letter.

Since June 2002, the city has added $41,176 to property tax bills for non-compliance.

Two years after moving to her West Milwaukee neighborhood, Megan Hayes, 26, said she had had it with vulgarity, rudeness, "loud and drunk and just crazy" people who moved in and out of a multifamily property across the street. She said police responded quickly, and often, to neighbors' complaints, but she wanted more to be done.

She sent a letter to residents near S. 49th St. and W. National Ave., telling them she'd ask the Village Board for help. About a dozen neighbors joined her to speak to trustees in May.

Since the village brought the matter to the landlord's attention in recent weeks, neighbors say he has evicted the tenants and has been renovating the property.

"Hopefully he'll get some better clientele in there," she said. "The biggest concern of the neighbors is finally having something done."

St. Francis passed its ordinance in July 2001, said Police Chief Victor Venus, who said all property owners who received letters have responded to correct problems.

"I think it's a good tool," Venus said. "People shouldn't have to live next to problems. It's the responsibility of the landlord or whoever owns it to make sure the buildings are good places to live and it's a good neighborhood, besides just collecting money."

But Orv Seymer, a landlord and president of the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, said police have gone too far in using the ordinance as a catch-all for some neighborhood problems, specifically in Milwaukee.

After its inception, he received a phone call about a problem property. Police were cooperative and helpful early on, but he said enforcement lately as "gotten a bit out of hand" for some property owners.

The association is in discussions with the mayor's office, Seymer said.

"What we're concerned about is the police are using this as a tool to be an all-encompassing kind of thing," he said.

From the Aug. 5, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel