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Milton rental ordinance would demand timely repairs

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
June 25, 2011
— While touring rental houses last year to help his daughter find an apartment, Milton Mayor Tom Chesmore had an eye-opener.

He didn't like what he saw.


He'd hoped to find a nice, clean place in Milton for his daughter and her son to rent.


Instead, Chesmore found places with holes in walls, warped floors, multiple units sharing thermostats and water meters, broken windows and basement walls and floors covered in mold.


"That raised my hackles right up," said Chesmore in an interview this week.


After the walkthroughs, Chesmore said, he told officials the city needs a policy to make sure renters aren't stuck with broken-down apartments and landlords who ignore the problems.


This week, the city's public safety committee answered with a draft ordinance that could allow city code enforcers to ticket landlords for failing to make timely, adequate repairs to residential rental properties.


And instead of going to circuit court, the ordinance would allow the complaints to be handled locally, in municipal court.


Under the ordinance, if a tenant had a broken water heater and had made many unsuccessful attempts to reach a landlord—or the landlord promised to fix it and didn't for several days—the city could send a code enforcement officer and a city inspector to check out the problem. Tickets and a hearing in city court could follow.


The ordinance also would allow landlords to more easily handle repairs when tenants damage properties.


City officials say the ordinance would offer renters and landlords a faster way to handle problems than filing a complaint in circuit court.


"This cuts through the red tape people face at the state or in Madison," Chesmore said.


The council approved the ordinance in a first read this week. A final vote could come as early as July, pending language changes requested this week by alderwoman Nancy Lader, who owns eight rental properties in Milton.


Although the ordinance is virtually identical to the state statute on residential rental repairs, Lader asked the city to put it under a legal microscope to ensure it matches state requirements.


Lader said she's not against the city helping tenants with property repairs, but she is concerned the ordinance could put undue pressure on local landlords.


In an interview, she argued renters should understand it might take a few hours to reach a landlord, and she noted it can take a couple of days to fix big problems such as a broken furnace.


"You have to be somewhat realistic. You can't always get it when you want it," Lader said.


She noted sometimes parts are on backorder or a repairman can't get to a property right away.


"That's beyond my control. I have put in for the part," Lader said.


Chesmore said the ordinance isn't intended to brand all rental owners in Milton as slumlords. He said it's intended to ensure renters have decent, safe housing while retaining amenities spelled out in their lease.


"If you pay your bills on time, you shouldn't have to worry about whether you'll have heat in the winter or hot water. You're entitled to it," he said.


During a city council discussion this week on the ordinance, Lader told the council people who rent a cheap place shouldn't be surprised by problems. She compared it to buying a $200 car.


Chesmore doesn't buy that argument.


"Just because you're paying cheap rent doesn't give someone the right to throw you into a dump. People shouldn't be treated like animals," he said.


He said landlords who follow state statutes on repairs shouldn't worry about city code enforcers knocking on their doors.


"It'll be the same as state statute. Landlords know what they need to do now, so it should be really easy to remember when it becomes an ordinance here," Chesmore said.


Lader argues the city should hold homeowners to the same standards, pointing out that she's seen private residences with holes in the siding big enough to see inside from the street.


But just try forcing repairs out of some of those owners, Lader said.


"Asking for repairs to be made in a timely manner—there is a part of the population that can't do that," she said.



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