Hundreds of landlord complaints yield four citations
JANESVILLE—For months, the tenants at 1605 Green Forest Run No. 2 have worn a garbage bag while using their bathroom, they said.
That's to avoid being splashed by water leaking from pipes above.
Lucas Rognholt and his girlfriend, Krystal Harris, have other problems they claim their landlord, Michael Scieszinski of Regency Run Apartments, has refused to address since the couple moved in in October.
The bathroom and kitchen sinks and the dishwasher leak, the stove is missing a burner, and dripping pipes in the garage are deteriorating the ceiling.
"I have to wear a poncho to use my bathroom," Rognholt said. "I'm sick of living like this."
Janesville has always had bad landlords, but the situation is getting worse, said Dale Hicks, president of Janesville Area Rental Property Association, which represents landlords.
Hicks said he's aware some landlords nickel and dime tenants, don't refund their security deposits when they move out, and don't address problems with properties.
"Landlords aren't taking care of properties as much as they probably could or should," Hicks said.
From Jan. 1, 2016, through mid-April 2017, the city received 2,383 complaints against properties. City inspectors estimate at least 70 percent of those complaints—about 1,668—were against rental properties, but issued only four citations in 2016. So far this year, the city has issued one.
Hicks said the consequences for violating city ordinances or state statutes are not serious enough to motivate some landlords to behave better.
Neighborhood Development Specialist Kelly Mack said some landlords take advantage of the city and use city staff as a personal maintenance crew.
THE LANDLORD CLIMATE
Rognholt and Harris aren't the only tenants in their building with problems. Across the hall, elderly veteran August Hohl has a filthy tub with clogged plumbing that takes days to drain. He's unable to clean the tub because it's constantly full of dirty water, Hohl said.
Another tenant, Alison Nightengale, said it took Scieszinski months to fix a leaking garbage disposal. Other problems in her apartment still haven't been taken care of, she said.
The tenants said they repeatedly informed their landlord of the issues, but after months of unfulfilled promises, the tenants took matters into their own hands.
That's when living in the apartments became a nightmare, tenants said.
The better a landlord takes care of a property, the better tenants he has. Ignoring issues leads to an "ongoing cycle" of problems, Hicks said.
The result is sometimes resentful tenants who retaliate. Others are too fearful to call out shady landlord practices and are taken advantage of, Hicks said.
Mack said Janesville has hundreds of landlords, and she acknowledged some are headaches for tenants and city staff alike.
"I believe we have a handful of landlords who own a significant amount of property who choose to not provide the best housing," Mack said.
"We spend most of our time with a handful," she said.
According to a Gazette analysis of city data, 18 landlords and property management companies had at least 10 complaints filed against them with the city Neighborhood and Community Services Department in 2016. The complaints were mostly related to:
— Nuisance debris or trash.
— Maintenance issues such as siding, plumbing, roofs or other things in need of repair.
— Zoning issues such as illegal home occupations or parking in the yard.
The No. 1 complaint-earner by far was Richard "Rick" Donahue. He had 120 complaints among his 111 properties in 2016. That's three times as many as the company with the second-most complaints—40 filed against TMG Rentals on its 31 properties.
Scieszinski earned 10 complaints from the nine properties he owns. He owns 64 units within the nine properties, he said.
More units does not automatically mean more complaints. Village Green East Apartments has about 600 units but rarely gets complaints, Mack said.
SKIRTING THE LAW
Some landlords run close to the line of what is and isn't legal to take advantage of tenants, Hicks said.
Some take advantage of the city, Mack said.
A few landlords use the city's orders as a punch list of what needs to be taken care of at their properties instead of doing their own inspections. Landlords sometimes wait for the city to take care of debris or trash on lawns instead of cleaning up themselves, Mack said.
Hicks said there are no "teeth" in the rules to prevent landlords from breaking the rules again.
"We have laws, have rules, but if I break the rules, so what? Who's going to do something?" Hicks said.
The city can cite landlords, but that doesn't mean they'll pay. If they don't, it's not guaranteed they'll end up in court, Hicks said.
Even if they do, it's usually a long, tedious process to get them there, Mack said.
"In the meantime, what do you do with that property?" she asked.
Some of the wealthier landlords are willing to pay fines rather than spend money to fix issues, Mack said.
In an effort to curb such problems, nearby cities have tried requiring landlords to get licenses or permits before they can rent properties. Beloit was one such city until landlords won a lawsuit earlier this year against the city to abolish the practice.
Even while the permitting system was in place, it didn't help Beloit curb its landlord problems. Beloit has more landlord issues than Janesville, Hicks said.
"It's not a case where we need more laws. We need something to enforce those laws," he said.
If a tenant reports problems, a city inspector goes to the property and issues to the landlord an order to correct problems. Staff reinspects the property at a later date to see if the problems have been fixed, Mack said.
For its part, the city uses citations as a last resort to encourage landlords to fix problems, Mack said.
From the beginning of 2016 through mid-April 2017, the city received 2,383 complaints against properties. About 111 property owners were charged reinspection fees for failing to comply with orders to correct. About 65 of those resinspection fees were issued to landlords, she said.
Based on those complaints, the city cited landlords four times. City staff would rather landlords sink money into a property than pay fines, Mack said.
"Our ultimate goal is always to have the repairs done," she said.
IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION
The city has a system in place to combat chronic nuisance properties.
If an order to correct is served or a tenant is arrested, that's considered an "action." If a rental property reaches four actions in a year, it's considered a chronic nuisance. The landlord is then required to meet with city staff to come up with an abatement plan to fix the problems.
City staff held at least 14 such meetings in 2016, Mack said.
Police Chief David Moore said the city has had success with abatement plans. Most landlords who meet with cops to come up with abatement plans comply with them, Moore said.
"We've had good cooperation, albeit forced," he said.
Forced or not, it's good to get landlords' cooperation because bad landlords can tarnish a city's reputation, Moore said.
"A small group of irresponsible landlords can harm a community. A pocket of problem properties can tend to define an entire community as being unsafe," he said.
Sometimes the problem is the tenants themselves, but even tenants are ultimately the landlord's responsibility because the landlord picks the tenants, Mack said.
But just because a landlord comes up with an abatement plan, is fined, or is ordered to appear in court for repeat violations doesn't mean problems will get fixed, she said.
For instance, years ago, one landlord had more than 150 violations and let citations pile up until he owed about $65,000, Mack said.
Another landlord recently told Mack he refused to fix peeling paint at his property. The landlord told Mack having siding and a roof was sufficient, Mack said.
When Mack explained he's still required to paint the property, "it fell on deaf ears." The city will cite the landlord, Mack said.
"That's always our dilemma in this department is how do you get a handle on those? And I don't have one simple answer," Mack said.
Janesville City Council President Doug Marklein said landlords might need to be fined more and more for repeat violations to force compliance.
"Some people just need enforcement, some type of fine or punishment to be compliant," Moore agreed.
Hicks said it might be a good idea to form an ad-hoc committee of city officials, landlords and others to brainstorm ideas to address what he considers to be Janesville's landlord problem.
In the meantime, the Janesville Area Rental Property Association is doing its best to teach landlords, police officers and others how to reduce and respond to problems.
The association trains landlords to help their tenants be what landlords want: clean, communicative and timely with payments. The association teaches police how landlords should be taking care of their properties so officers know what to look for when responding to complaints, Hicks said.
GREEN FOREST RUN
After getting nowhere with Scieszinski, Rognholt set up a renters union meeting with other frustrated tenants and contacted the city to have his apartment inspected.
On June 1, the city inspector found 15 problems Scieszinski was ordered to correct. Nine were in Rognholt's apartment, according to the order.
After the meeting and inspection, things got worse for the tenants, Rognholt said.
According to the tenants, Scieszinski began spreading rumors about them to each other. Rognholt and Harris said an angry Scieszinski once knocked on their door so hard he split part of the wood.
"It's very nerve racking. It's been one heck of a process," Harris said.
Scieszinski denied it all and said the tenants are conspiring against him and plan to sue him.
Scieszinski said he rents to people many other landlords would turn away. Rognholt has been in court several times for marijuana possession and disorderly conduct charges.
Landlords can be an easy target for tenants to lash out at, Scieszinski said.
"We've been nothing but nice to these people," he said. "I'm the one who's getting harassed."
Scieszinski said he was not told about problems and said he can't fix what he doesn't know about. He and his wife, Abigail Scieszinski, described their business as a "mom and pop" operation and said they'd live in any of their apartments.
"This is a great place to live and control your cost," Scieszinski said.
Scieszinski tried to evict Rognholt and Harris in late June on the grounds they were behind on payments, but Scieszinski failed to prove his case in court, and the case was dismissed.
Rognholt and Harris are looking for a way out.
"I shouldn't have to live like this for $775 a month," Rognholt said.
"It's not fair."
This story was updated Wednesday, July 19, to reflect new data provided by Janesville officials. The total number of complaints against property owners was 2,383. At least an estimated 70 percent of those complaints—or 1,668—were against rental properties.